Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Pulling the Wings Off Angels by K.J. Parker
Pulling the Wings Off Angels, K.J. Parker (Tordotcom 978-1-25083-576-5, $16.99, 144pp, tp) November 2022.
K.J. Parker may have the most distinctive voice of any contemporary fantasy writer, and certainly one of the funniest. His tales of an alternate but easily recognizable Europe sometimes resemble heist capers, sometimes gangster sagas, sometimes comedies of errors – and sometimes they feature provocative discussions of ethics, philosophy, and religion, often disguised in the cynical voice of a self-admitted fraud and grifter. His most familiar character is probably the philosopher/artist/composer/playwright Saloninus, ‘‘the smartest man who ever lived,’’ who we’ve previously encountered in the novellas Blue and Gold (2010), The Devil You Know (2016), and The Big Score (2021), the latter of which featured his confession that, chronically unable to monetize his brilliant creations, he has always depended on con games and swindles to stay afloat. Saloninus shows up again in Pulling the Wings Off Angels, but the narrator and central figure is a former student of his who, before the tale even begins, has managed to (a) get himself into massive debt with a ruthless gangster named Florio, and (b) find himself doomed to hell because of his grandfather’s various sins, which the grandfather ingeniously offloaded onto later generations. The latter, a kind of theological catch-22, is the most interesting of several characteristic moral conundrums that Parker offers up in his usual screwball comedy fashion. ‘‘You can’t be forgiven,’’, the titular angel explains when the narrator offers penance, because ‘‘you haven’t done anything wrong…. But your grandfather did plenty.’’
The angel in question is not only the central plot point of the novella, but also a vivid figure with the sophisticated, caustic voice and attitude of a Katharine Hepburn character. In order to satisfy his debt to Florio, the narrator agrees to capture the angel, even though he initially doesn’t even believe angels exist. But it turns out that the creative genius Saloninus has not only found a way to trap an angel, but to imprison her in a kind of theological Faraday cage – a space which is invisible to God, and in which the brutal but weirdly affable Florio can actually do what the title says. The thoroughly corrupt deal-making which follows involves Florio and the narrator not only gaining control of a broken-down kingdom, but eventually concocting a scheme to directly challenge God Himself.
As funny as they may be, Parker’s stories are never without a genuinely dark edge, and the violence and brutality of Pulling the Wings Off Angels is evident from its opening paragraph – or for that matter, from the title itself, which turns out to be pretty literal. Virtually all his characters are looking for the main chance, and only secondarily or even inadvertently find themselves committing moral acts (such as what happens when Florio and the narrator inherit that shabby kingdom). Redemption, when it comes at all, is less a matter of grace than of shrewd deal-making, and even the smartest man who ever lived – an absurd amalgam of Aristotle, da Vinci, Newton, Mozart, and Groucho Marx – is essentially a con artist. Yet there’s something undeniably appealing about these charlatans, and a lot of that has to do with Parker’s masterful control of narrative tone and his sharp dialogue. Pulling the Wings Off Angels is a more than worthy addition to Parker’s unique version of his own genre–what we might call the comedy of bad manners.
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 November 2022 issue of Locus.
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