High Times in the Low Parliament, Kelly Robson (Tordotcom 978-1-25082-302-1, $14.99, 160pp, tp) August 2022. Cover by Kate Forrester.
It could be that what modern fantasy needs, from time to time, is a good jolt of old-fashioned goofiness. Few ideas I’ve seen recently are as goofy as the notion of trying to weave a romantic fairy fantasy around the struggles of a legislative body that can’t get anything done because of arcane voting procedures. This is basically the premise of Kelly Robson’s delightful High Times in the Low Parliament, set in an alternate London of what appears to be the early 18th century. While it shares some history with our own London (such as the great fire of 1666), Robson’s city is overseen by a rather testy population of fairies – classic picture-book fairies, complete with glittering wings and pixie dust–who seem to feel it’s their responsibility to keep the hapless human citizens from self-imposed catastrophes. The imposing fairy palace is one of the dominant structures of the cityscape, and our protagonist, a talented scribe named Lana Baker, finds herself sent there on an errand for another scribe with whom she enjoyed a brief infatuation.
Infatuations, in fact, sort-of seem to be Lana’s thing, and, along with her incompetence at math, are the only things holding back a promising career. When Lana arrives at the palace, though, that career takes an unexpected turn: she’s drafted by the fairies to join a cadre of scribes assigned to record the proceedings of Low Parliament, a chaotic body of human legislators, called deputies. Part of the chaos comes from the disparate languages employed by the deputies in their debates – like a cross between EU meetings and a particularly contentious House of Commons – but the main problem involves archaic voting rules that require a two-thirds majority in order to get anything done. Even though the fairies, who impatiently oversee the Parliament, have warned the deputies that they’ll all be drowned if they can’t get their act together, everyone seems more interested in posturing than in meaningful action – all of which sounds just as familiar as it’s supposed to.
After Lana makes a couple of friends among the other scribes and finds an unlikely ally in the cranky fairy Bugbite, she falls into another of her infatuations, this time with the lithe but reticent deputy Eloquentia. As this three-way relationship plays out in classic romantic screwball comedy form, the political gridlock begins to shift toward the apocalyptic, until the plotlines start to converge in an unlikely but quite satisfactory manner. High Times in the Low Parliament is, at its best, demented fun and shrewd satire, but along the way Robson has introduced us to a thoroughly engaging rogue in Lana, along with an appealingly grumpy fairy who comes to learn that humans might, after all, be worth saving from themselves. It’s a pair we wouldn’t mind visiting again.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the July 2022 issue of Locus.
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