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K.J. Parker

In 2015 it was revealed that the name K.J. Parker is a pseudonym of author Tom Holt. Having worked in journalism and the law, K.J. Parker now writes and makes things out of wood and metal. Learn more at K.J. Parker’s website.

Shadow: Immerse yourself in the world of an amnesiac

Shadow by K.J. Parker

Shadow by K.J. Parker is a difficult book to recommend because I highly enjoyed it, but I can also understand why many readers might hate it or be unable to finish it. It’s a unique book.

Shadow opens with the protagonist waking up surrounded by dead bodies and having no memory of who he is. He goes from one odd situation to another trying to make some sort of life for himself while trying to find out who he is and where he fits in the world. This may seem to be a rather cliché plot, but Parker keeps the reader just as clueless as the protagonist is through most of Shadow, so the reader gleans bits and pieces of the world, culture, and custom at the same rate as the protagonist does. Parker does this artfully, with a finesse that adds much-needed layers to the world.

However, this is why readers w... Read More

Devices and Desires: Parker has a unique cynical voice

Devices and Desires by K.J. Parker

How could I not automatically love a book where the first line is: The quickest way to a man’s heart,’ said the instructor, ‘is proverbially through his stomach. But if you want to get into his brain, I recommend the eye-socket.” It was love at first sight. K.J. Parker’s Devices and Desires is a complex, quickly moving book that is filled with what I am quickly discovering to be Parker’s unique, cynical voice (and I do love dry cynicism).

This book is told from several points of view, but the main plot is about engineers and the importance of the machines they make. Parker deftly constructs his/her chapters so each one lies atop the last like another cog in a great machine. Perhaps one of the most artful parts of the plot is that no matter how complex the devices get, the force that is responsible for all the change and movement t... Read More

Evil for Evil: Complex and profound

Evil for Evil by K.J. Parker

Evil for Evil is the second book in K.J. Parker’s Engineer Trilogy and it is probably one of the strongest “middle books” I’ve read. Evil for Evil hits the road running and not once does the plot slow down or ease up. Parker’s writing is, as always, rich, detailed, evocative and dry. The theme is the same: the importance, and ultimately destructiveness, of love as well as the importance of creation and desire. While these themes may seem rather mundane and arbitrary, Parker weaves them into a complex, multi-faceted plot that can’t help but suck the reader in.

The second novel in a series is usually the weakest because the plot tends to drag as it bridges the gap between the beginning and the ending, and usually that’s exactly what a second book feels like: plodding across a gigantic bridge to some unknown end. Not Read More

The Escapement: Fascinating and provocative

The Escapement by K.J. Parker

The Escapement picks up where Evil for Evil left off. It’s shorter than the previous two books in The Engineer Trilogy, but for all its brevity, it’s still packed with surprises. After reading two books without fully knowing what is being manipulated and planned, readers are presented with nearly constant revelations regarding characters and plot points that had only been hinted at and alluded to before.

Up to this point in the trilogy, Parker has indirectly discussed love and the question of the existence of good and evil. The Escapement explores these ideas openly in dialogue and self-monologues. Conversations about whether good and evil truly exist and about the driving force and impact of love are absolutely fascinating and provocative, and Parker has a... Read More

The Company: A dark story that lingers

The Company by K.J. Parker

The Company has been called "military fantasy," but I question both terms of that characterization. First, while The Company is absolutely not set in this world, there is nothing magical or fantastical about it. But if we define fantasy to include “an historical novel not set on this world,” then we’ve got a fantasy here, and I guess we must be satisfied with that. I also don’t see this as a military novel. Certainly, all the characters served together in a very long war, and their relationships with one another were formed in military college and through their careers as soldiers. Parker also frequently recounts incidents from the war in episodes interleaved with the present day. But war is not the core of this book. Rather, this is a sort of buddy novel, a novel about how men work together and about the dynamics of male friendship. It is rare to find a novel... Read More

Purple and Black: Going to assign this to my political theory class

Purple and Black by K.J. Parker

You have to love a story that starts out with the line, “You are, of course, an unmitigated bastard.”

Purple and Black is a collection of the military dispatches sent back and forth between the new Roman Emperor Nicephorus and his best friend Phormio, who has reluctantly taken charge of the military at Nico’s insistence. Nico is appointing his friends to the important government positions because the empire has gone through seventy-seven emperors in the last one hundred years — all but a handful of them dying painful deaths. Official business of the Empire is written in purple ink, but there is enough room in the dispatch tubes for one extra sheet of paper, and here, written in pedestrian black, we learn the true story behind the official business. The novella is actually printed in purple and black ink.

One of the delights of being a reviewer is bein... Read More

The Folding Knife: Highly recommended to anyone who can read

The Folding Knife by K.J. Parker

The back cover blurb describes K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife like this:

Basso the Magnificent. Basso the Great. Basso the Wise. The First Citizen of the Vesani public is an extraordinary man. He is ruthless, cunning, and above all, lucky. He brings wealth, power, and prestige to his people. But with power comes unwanted attention, and Basso must defend his nation and himself from threats foreign and domestic. In a lifetime of crucial decisions, he’s only ever made one mistake. One mistake, though, can be enough.

I would describe The Folding Knife as the perfect hybrid of Greek tragedy and Shakespearean history. Or like watching Icarus taking off on his doomed flight, knowing that every wingstroke upwards is just additional distance he has to fall. In an alternative world that evokes the Mediterranean ... Read More

Blue and Gold: Fast, intense, and dramatic

Update: We now know that K.J. Parker is a pseudonym of Tom Holt.

Blue and Gold by K.J. Parker

Talk about unreliable narrators! If you like that technique, you’re sure to enjoy K.J. Parker’s Blue and Gold. It’s a fast, intense, and dramatic little book that will entertain you for an afternoon.

Saloninus is probably the cleverest alchemist who ever lived (or is he?). After publishing several important (?) papers and losing his tuition money, he drops out of the university and begins a life of crime, then gets commissioned by the prince to figure out how to do two things: 1. Produce the elixir of eternal youth and 2. Turn base metal into gold. During the process, though, he accidentally (?) poisons his beautiful and brilliant wife, so now he’s on the run and he’s pretty stressed-out.
Read More

The Devil You Know: Saloninus makes a deal with the Devil

The Devil You Know by K.J. Parker

Everything that K.J. Parker writes automatically goes on my TBR list. So when I picked up The Devil You Know, I figured I was in for a treat but I didn’t realize that the novella is a sequel to Blue and Gold, one of my favorite Parker stories. You don’t need to read Blue and Gold to enjoy The Devil You Know, but you may as well, since it’s such a great story. But don’t worry; I won’t spoil it here.

In Blue and Gold we met Saloninus, a wily philosopher and alchemist who was commissioned to perform the two ultimate alchemical feats: creating the elixir of life and turning base metal into gold. In the first sentence of the book, he informed us that he had murdered his wife and w... Read More

The Hammer: Entertaining but deceptively deep

The Hammer by K.J. Parker

Gignomai met’Oc is the youngest son of a once-noble family that, decades ago, fell out of favor and was exiled from the Empire’s capital to a remote and comparably primitive colony established 70 years before the start of the novel. The met’Oc family is really twice isolated, as it lives on a plateau separate from the rest of the colony, with which it lives in an uneasy kind of not-quite-peace. While Gig’s older brothers Luso and Stheno have their own responsibilities around the house, Gig has enough free time to get into trouble, including the occasional illicit trip to the colony, where he learns more about how the colonists perceive his family and meets with his friend Furio.

The Hammer has an interesting structure, as it’s divided into 4 sections: “Seven Years Before,” “The Year When,” “Seven Years After,” and “Five Years Later.” The first two sectio... Read More

Sharps: It’s written by K.J. Parker

Sharps by K.J. Parker

Sharp swords, dirty books and pickled cabbage. Why has everything on this trip got to be horrible?

The neighboring kingdoms of Permia and Scheria have always been enemies. Some of their citizens like it this way — particularly those of the military aristocracies who are valued (and therefore kept in power) by their countrymen when the two kingdoms are at war. The last war ended, though, when General Carnufex of Scheria managed to divert a few rivers and flood a major Permian city, killing its entire population of thousands of people. It’s been years since General Carnufex (now known as “the Irrigator”) pulled out of Permia and the two countries, separated by a demilitarized zone, have mostly left each other alone.

Many people in each country (especially those of the lower classes) would like to forget the past and try to forge friendship and cooperation with the neighboring cou... Read More

Academic Exercises: A collection of stories from an original voice

Academic Exercises by K.J. Parker

K.J. Parker is a relatively recent discovery of mine, and she (?) is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. Known for her dry cynicism, understated humor, and intriguing explorations of morality, her stories are set in a historically informed world fleshed out with Parker’s rich historical knowledge.

Collected here in her first anthology, Academic Exercises, her short fiction has so far won two World Fantasy Awards for her novellas “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” and “Let Maps to Others.” Included in this anthology are also three non-fiction essays on historical subjects such as siege warfare, and the history of swords, and armor.

K.J. Parker's short fiction differs from her longer works in that they frequently feature magical elements, something that her longer works largely stay away from.  Although some... Read More

Savages: A solid new novel by K.J. Parker

Savages by K.J. Parker

A pacifist who inherits his father's failing arms business, a general who wins all of his battles and sets in motion the fate of empires because of decisions he makes in the last second before a battle commences, a tribesman who loses his family and survives an attempt at his life to become, well, every single thing he chooses to be. Those and many other memorable characters populate K.J. Parker's newest standalone novel, Savages, a solid offering that is sure to please readers of the author's previous works.

There's a war between two nations, as there usually is, and the losing nation has managed to get a hold of a brilliant strategist by the name of Calojan, whose name means little dog in his home nation and whose father was a famous artist of pornographic paintings featuring his wife. C... Read More

The Last Witness: A fascinating study of memory

The Last Witness by K.J. Parker

The Last Witness is another of K.J. Parker’s novellas in which an unreliable first-person narrator tells us the story of his unfortunate life. This technique worked brilliantly in Blue and Gold, and it does so again here.

The Last Witness is about a man who, when he was a boy, realized that he had the magical ability to remove people’s memories from their brains. This is a useful skill. When he was young, our narrator used it to remove incriminating memories from those who might punish him or testify against him, but later he begins to earn a living by selling his services to others.

For example, someone might hire him to eliminate a particularly unpleas... Read More

The Two of Swords: Much to admire across the series

The Two of Swords: Volumes One, Two, and Three by K. J. Parker

Reading any of K.J. Parker’s books will reveal that he is deeply skeptical of human nature, very much including the feelings and ideals that usually get the best press. He passed his witheringly critical eye over romantic love in the ENGINEER trilogy, platonic friendship in The Company, and in THE TWO OF SWORDS series, idealistic devotion to a cause and rationalism get their turn in the ducking chair.

The story is set in the same world as the ENGINEER trilogy — I got the impression it was hundreds of ye... Read More

Downfall of the Gods: As good a novella as his award-winning ones

Downfall of the Gods by K.J. Parker

Who do you fear when you're an immortal god?

Your father seems worthy of your fear. He is older, more powerful, perhaps wiser. His wrath can make your life a living hell, and you don't want to be the one god in your family that strays far from the godly path you're born to follow. Your life is eternal, and that is both blessing and curse. Fortunately, there are a handful of talented human beings in every generation, and a truly wonderful musician has arisen. Lysippus is his name, and you know for a fact that there will never be anyone else capable of dreaming up music like the ones he creates. It's a shame that he chose to sleep with the wife of his best friend; his friend didn't take kindly to that and murdered him. Can you in your godly wisdom forgive the murderer of your most cherished mortal? Not likely, but when your father pressures you into doing so, what is a goddess to do?

... Read More

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City: My kind of war story

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

Anything written by K.J. Parker is a must-read for me. I love his work and recommend it to anyone looking for exciting stories with unique, intelligent, and often unreliable, heroes. Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City (2019) is no exception.

Orhan is a master bridge builder who’s slightly corrupt (you have to be if you want to get anything done on time and within budget in this city). He arrived in the city when he was a child after his parents were killed and the enemy enslaved him. Now those enemies are his neighbors, colleagues, employers, and employees. While Orhan acknowledges that he is living among people he should hate, he is also thankful for the opportunities he’s been given in the city he now calls home.

Now that city is besieged by an ov... Read More

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It: Entertaining sequel

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K.J. Parker

I wasn’t expecting a sequel to K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, but was delighted to see one because Parker is on my (very short) must-read list. While How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It (2020) is marketed as book #2 of his THE SIEGE series, it takes place several years later and has a different set of characters, so it’s not a requirement that you read Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City first. I’d recommend that you do read these books in order, though, because the background is a bit helpful and, in my opinion, the first book is better.

Despite the actions of Orhan, the... Read More

Magazine Monday: Online stories by Sterling and Parker

Today we're featuring a couple of stories that you can find free online.

“Taklamakan” by Bruce Sterling

Read for free online

Many years ago, Bruce Sterling wrote a short story called “Taklamakan” that won a Hugo award. I’ve been trying to read some past award winners, and since this one was handily available, I decided to start there. So, here’s my problem. “Taklamakan” won the Hugo Award for best short story in 1999 when it was published in the Oct/Nov 1998 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. That means the story is 13 or 14 years old. Do you know how badly near-future science fiction ages in 13 years?

“Taklamakan” is set in the Taklamakan Desert in 2052. Genetically modified NAFT... Read More

Magazine Monday: Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2013

Editor's note: We now know that K.J. Parker is author Tom Holt.

The Summer 2013 issue of Subterranean Magazine has a special K.J. Parker section, which is a treat for anyone who has read any of Parker’s work. This author (gender unknown) writes from the perspective of a military historian, and appears to have a special interest in ancient Greek and Roman warfare. All of his/her stories have the flavor of ancient days.

“The Sun and I” is the first of two Parker stories in this issue. It is a take on the statement attributed to L. Ron Hubbard: “If you want to get rich, you start a religion!”  Five friends, all from wealthy and e... Read More

Magazine Monday: Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014

The Winter 2014 issue of Subterranean Magazine was edited by guest editor Jonathan Strahan, the editor of a popular year’s best anthology and a number of other anthologies. He has good taste, as the stories chosen for this issue demonstrate — with the exception of the longest and last piece, a snarky bit of irreligious, virtually plotless prose by Bruce Sterling (about which more below).

“The Scrivener” by Eleanor Arnason is structured as a fairy tale often is, with three daughters each setting out on an errand prescribed by their father. This father wants his daughters to be writers of stories, a goal of his own he has never achieved because, he thinks, he lacks the divine spark necessary to such an endeavor. When his daughters are grown, he takes them to a famous critic, who reads their stories, which they had written reluctantly, fearing their... Read More

Magazine Monday: Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2014

To the dismay of all lovers of great speculative short fiction, the Summer issue of Subterranean Magazine is its last. This magazine was notable not just for the quality of its fiction, but for its willingness to publish short fiction at the novelette and novella lengths. The Summer issue ably demonstrates just what we’re going to be missing.

The magazine begins with Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “Pushing the Sky Away (Death of a Blasphemer).” The first person narrator is in desperate straits, her water and morphine gone, lost in a building of endless hallways, caught in a dispute between the Djinn and the Ghûl. Yet despite the fantasy setting, science has a place in this tale, as Cesium isotopes and radiation poisoning play a role. Kiernan’s language is chosen carefully, turning parts of this story into veritable prose poetry... Read More

Magazine Monday: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 157

The sixth anniversary edition of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a double issue, with four excellent stories.

The first is “The Sorrow of Rain” by Richard Parks, one of his Lord Yamada stories. Lord Yamada is a demon hunter in medieval Japan who tells his stories in the first person. On this occasion, he has been asked to stop incessant, late season rains; if the rains do not stop long enough to allow for a harvest within the next three days, the rice will spoil in the fields, leading to famine. Yamada sees a rain spirit almost as soon as he arrives, but she is neither a ghost nor a demon, and doesn’t seem to be the source of the rain. And the headman isn’t telling him everything. Parks tells gentle stories full of an ancient culture, usually involving a mystery, as here. His gentleness usually has a soft sting in the tail, though, a lesson about life that the characters have forgotten and about which Parks reminds us. A Lord... Read More

SHORTS: Vernon, Sloan, Parker, Poe, Wood, Bear

There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about.

"Jackalope Wives" by Ursula Vernon (2014, free at Apex Magazine, podcast available)

Ursula Vernon's "Jackalope Wives" is the winner of this year's Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award for short story and deservedly so. It certainly has my vote. It isn't clear where the story is set. All we know is that on the outskirts of town lies a desert, and in the desert the jackalope wives comes out at night to dance a wild dance. What are jackalope wives? This isn't immediately clear, we are drip fed tantalising details of their long ears and smooth coats which they shed in order to dance. They entrance the young men of the town and one in particular. But what happens when you catch a jackalope wife is ... Read More

SHORTS: Parker, Bova, Resnick, Porter

There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about. 

“Amor Vincit Omnia” by K.J. Parker (2010, free at Subterranean Press, republished in Academic Exercises, a short fiction anthology by K.J. Parker)

In a world where magic is considered a branch of natural philosophy and is practiced only by a secretive group of scholars, the normal order of things is upset when a rogue magician appears and starts violently murdering innocent villagers, displaying a complete defensive po... Read More

SHORTS: Shepard, de Bodard, Bear, Jemisin, Parker, Holland

Our weekly exploration of free short fiction available on the internet. This week's theme, just for fun, is stories dealing with dragons. 

The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard (1984, free online at (sample from the Bestiary anthology), originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, also collected in The Dragon Griaule). 1985 Hugo and 1984 Nebula nominee (novelette), 1985 World Fantasy Award nominee (novella)

In 19th century South America, ... Read More

Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery

Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery edited by Jonathan Strahan & Lou Anders

Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery is a book I’ve been eagerly anticipating ever since it was first announced in 2009. I was particularly excited about the anthology’s impressive list of contributors which includes several authors I enjoy reading like Glen Cook, Greg Keyes, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Garth Nix, Tim Lebbon, Caitlin R. Kiern... Read More

Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2

Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 edited by William Schafer

EDITOR INFORMATION: William K. Schafer is the head editor at Subterranean Press, which was founded in 1995. Schafer’s bibliography includes Embrace the Mutation: Fiction Inspired by the Art of J.K. Potter and the first Tales of Dark Fantasy anthology.

ABOUT SUBTERRANEAN: TALES OF DARK FANTASY 2: Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy — published in 2008 to widespread critical and popular acclaim — provided a unique showcase for some of our finest practitioners of dark, disturbing fiction. This much anticipated second volume more than meets the standards set by its predecessor, offering a diverse assortment of stories guaranteed to delight, unsettle, and enthrall. Volume two proper is a full 20,000 wo... Read More

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014: An enjoyable collection

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014 edited by Rich Horton

I've been reading a lot of anthologies lately, including another of the several "Year's Best" collections (the Jonathan Strahan one). I was pleased to find that, unlike some of the others, this one matched my tastes fairly well for the most part.

I enjoy stories in which capable, likeable or sympathetic characters, confronted by challenges, confront them right back and bring the situation to some sort of meaningful conclusion. I was worried when I read the editor's introduction and saw him praising Lightspeed and Clarkesworld magazines, because they can often be the home of another kind of story, in which alienated, passive characters are battered by tragedy until the story stops at a t... Read More

More books by K.J. Parker

Fencer — (1998-2000) Publisher: Perimadeia, the famed Triple City, is mercantile capital of the known world, commanding a position at the fork of two rivers which makes it a wonder to behold and impossible to attack. However, a young plainsman is learning the city’s defence secrets which will allow him to bring it to its knees.

K.J. Parker Fencer: 1. Colours in the Steel 2. The Belly of the Bow 3. The Proof HouseK.J. Parker Fencer: 1. Colours in the Steel 2. The Belly of the Bow 3. The Proof HouseK.J. Parker Fencer: 1. Colours in the Steel 2. The Belly of the Bow 3. The Proof House