Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Under My Skin by K.J. Parker
Under My Skin, K.J. Parker (Subterranean 978-1-64524-079-2, $50.00, 680pp, hc) March 2023.
Under My Skin is the third major collection from K.J. Parker, and like Academic Exercises in 2014 and The Father of Lies in 2018, it’s a hefty one. This is mostly because Parker tends to favor novella and novelette-length stories, and four of the 13 stories here – “Mightier Than the Sword”, “My Beautiful Life”, “Prosper’s Demon”, and “The Big Score” – were previously published as standalone books. Three others are original to this collection, including the longest, “Relics”, which is easily the main new treasure for Parker fans. Finding honorable or reliable narrators in a Parker story is admittedly about as likely as finding Hello Kitty figures, but “Relics” gives us two: it’s an epistolary tale consisting of letters between a beleaguered archduke named Genseric and his old schoolfriend Pollio, a “pilgrim and slave” whose task is to go around purchasing holy relics – shinbones, foreskins, vertebrae, toes, etc. – until Genseric begins to think he’ll “have enough bits and pieces to build my own saint.” The relics turn out to be assets in the religious conflicts Genseric finds himself involved in (and is not very adept at, as Pollio points out), but as we begin to read between the lines of the back-and-forth epistles, tricky questions of faith, loyalty, and betrayal begin to raise some crucial issues that give the tale surprising depth.
The elaborate political maneuvering and masterfully sardonic tone will be familiar to readers of the earlier standalone novellas, each of which explore some aspect of Parker’s trademark alternate late-medieval to early renaissance Europe, with its scam culture of tricky sorcerers, fraudulent philosophers, magical artists, brutal but clumsy soldiers, and doughty peasants – as though the whole early Renaissance were somehow in the hands of the Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight. But Parker is also adept at describing institutions that somehow manage to preserve and provide continuity in a way that seems surprisingly credible, if a bit haphazard. The major such institution is the Studium, a kind of blend of Plato’s academy and early universities, but Parker doesn’t overlook the importance of religion. In “Mightier than the Sword”, monasteries and their libraries are attacked by mysterious pirate bands called Land and Sea Raiders, and the narrator, a legate who is the empress’s nephew, is sent to investigate. Each subsequent monastery he visits provides additional information while deepening the mystery of who the raiders are and what they want, and by the end the various political and family intrigues – such as the empress’s disapproval of his proposed marriage to a courtesan he’s enamored of–begin to fall into place in ingenious and unexpected ways. “My Beautiful Life”, allegedly dictated by the narrator, who is unable to read, to a servant, details, with many digressions, that narrator’s cynical and ruthless rise to power from an impoverished childhood in a remote mountain village, through a career of professional thievery, eventually blackmailing his way up a corrupt civil service hierarchy to a position of power; it’s perhaps the most complete portrait of one of Parker’s familiar scoundrels.
The narrator of “Prosper’s Demon” essentially makes his living as a freelance exorcist, driving out demons even when this may result in serious harm to the victim – but he is sometimes possessed by those same demons. His uneasy alliance with the Prosper of the title – who promotes himself as the most brilliant man who ever lived and doesn’t believe in possession at all – results in a razor-sharp exploration of the conflicts of faith, reason, and pure ego. The other most brilliant man who ever lived is Parker’s familiar Saloninus, not only the world’s greatest self-proclaimed philosopher and alchemist, but also the greatest composer, playwright, poet, mathematician, and scientist. We met him in earlier Parker novellas, and he’s back in “The Big Score”, in which we learn he was such a terrible businessman that he’s constantly in debt and on the run. Here he fakes his own death and hatches a scheme with a skilled forger to “discover” one of his own original plays and sell it for a fortune (the play itself sounds suspiciously like Hamlet). This may be the flat-out funniest of the novellas here.
Saloninus also shows up, under a fake name, in “The Thought That Counts”. (“I won’t tell you my name, because you’d recognize it immediately,” says the narrator, but then goes on to claim authorship of books elsewhere attributed to Saloninus.) Here he finds himself in court, defending a young peasant woman who has become a successful portrait artist whose subjects often become catatonic after the portrait is finished. He brilliantly defers accusations of witchcraft by invoking the quite modern medical notion of strokes, but in a later story, “Portrait of the Artist”, we hear from that same young woman, or someone very like her (she’s one of Parker’s few female narrators), many of whose subjects also suffer strokes. Her real motivation, like that of so many Parker characters, is simply to get filthy rich – in this case in order to finance an iron mining operation on property owned by her family.
While the often comic digressions are one of the delights of Parker’s narratives, they can also distract a bit from the central plots, which often involve a mission or assignment of some sort. Two of the most linear plots appear in “Habitat”, in which the narrator is more or less blackmailed into finding a way to capture a live dragon, and “The Best Man Wins”, whose narrator is commissioned, by a young man clearly untrained in battle, to forge the strongest sword in the world. The actual reason for needing the sword is the story’s main twist, but along the way we get a good dose of another characteristic Parker feature – a fascination with how medieval engineering actually worked, in this case a detailed explanation of how to forge such a sword (“Prosper’s Demon” gives us similar instructions on how to cast a giant bronze statue.)
In addition to “Relics”, the other two original stories here are departures from the familiar world of the Studium with its sketchy academics and cynical priests. “Stronger” almost has elements of an alien invasion tale; for centuries, the powerful inhabitants of the nearby Black Island have demanded an annual tribute of 24 young people from the narrator’s city, supposedly as a sacrifice to a bull-headed god who arrived long ago. When the narrator decides to visit the forbidden island to rescue the love of his life, he learns a good deal he hadn’t expected. Not surprisingly, given the hardly selfless motivations of Parker characters, the story also involves an elaborate scheme on the narrator’s part to make his family wealthy through a lumber business. “All Love Excelling” is perhaps Parker’s most direct satirical approach to Christianity, presented as a kind of dark sitcom about the frustrations and annoyances faced by the family of a famous messiah and savior, who’s always busy with raising the dead, casting out demons, walking on water, turning sticks into snakes, etc. The narrator, the messiah’s son, is a painter who even gets a Sistine Chapel-like gig. Another Biblical allusion is in the title of “Many Mansions”, which features another scholar (they refrain from calling themselves wizards) facing down a powerful witch, though the most interesting aspect of the story consists of “the Rooms,” top-secret psychic spaces, each with its own characteristics, where scholars can either hide out or conduct business such as exorcisms. Finally, “The Return of the Pig” takes us back to the world of the Studium, where three rivals for a tenured professorship set out to undermine or murder each other, while dealing with the revenant father of one of them, who has reincarnated as a huge feral pig. Like several of the stories, it takes place largely in the Mesoge, a hardscrabble region of dirt farms and dire poverty which serves as a reminder that affluent institutions like the Studium and the wealthy monasteries come at a price paid by the general population. The more we learn about Parker’s increasingly complex fever-dream of European history, the more disturbingly familiar it becomes, and the more we understand what really lies behind all those cynical, opportunistic, and wildly dishonest narrators, as appealing and hilarious as they might be at first reading.
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 May 2023 issue of Locus.
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