Update: We now know that K.J. Parker is a pseudonym of Tom Holt.
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.
Blue and Gold’s plot is told in a series of scenes that take place in the present and past as Saloninus gradually fills in more and more detail and occasionally corrects his previous misstatements. His scientific, yet unethical (perhaps even sociopathic), voice is fascinating. He doesn’t let us in on some important facts, and every time he adjusts the story we get a fresh — but not necessarily more accurate — perspective. It’s hard to know whether we’re supposed to be for or against Saloninus; all we know is that we can’t trust him. How can you trust someone who knowingly publishes scholarly papers based on faulty logic? And who won’t tell you who he is or what his goals and purposes are? It’s good that this novella is short, because this might not work in a longer story. Fortunately, Saloninus comes clean in the end, so you needn’t worry about an ambiguous conclusion.
I enjoyed the setting of Blue and Gold. It’s that cozy academic scene that I love: writing theses, studying, attending lectures, consulting advisers, gaining life-long friends. I’ve washed plenty of beakers, weighed my share of powdery chemicals, and sat at numerous lab benches. It felt so real here. I don’t know who K.J. Parker is, but (s)he knows what (s)he’s talking about. Throughout Blue and Gold, the science of alchemy is used as a metaphor for the passage of time, spending money, rising and declining social status, personality development, falling in love, and death.
Blue and Gold is a fast-paced, gripping, excellently written story, which will be especially enjoyed by those who appreciate unreliable narrators and who feel nostalgic about academic settings.
I’ll just join Kat in saying this: K.J. Parker has another gem on her (his?) hands with this little novella. Parker knows how to write an opening line:
“Well, let me see,” I said, as the innkeeper poured me a beer. “In the morning, I discovered the secret of changing base metal into gold. In the afternoon I murdered my wife.”
And from that start, you will plunge headlong into a story that goes through as many transmutations as an alchemist’s potion. Saloninus is an intriguing character that is arrogant, completely unreliable, brilliant, perhaps a little crazy, and fascinating to read about. Every time I thought I finally had the story figured out, Parker would peel away another layer and expose another facet to Saloninus and his treacherous and potentially deadly pursuits. It is not just Saloninus who is an alchemist; Parker is as well. Starting with the fairly base story elements of greed, envy and power, Parker transmutes these into literary gold. And as secretive as an alchemist who discovers the secret to eternal youth, Saloninus is equally secretive in revealing his plans. (Parker’s true identity is also one of the best kept secrets in the publishing industry. Her (his) publishers are contractually required to keep Parker’s true identity and even gender a secret.)
One other unique factor may account for my enjoyment of this book. Saloninus is a professional academic, and much of the story takes place in the hallowed halls of academia and in the science lab, toiling over research. As a college professor who has been known to get lost in the intricacies of data analysis for hours at a time, I could empathize and sympathize with the challenges Saloninus faced. If Parker has not been an academic at some point, she (he) has been closely associated with academics to depict the byzantine politics of academic ego-jousting with the accuracy and precision evident in this story.
I am deducting half a star because I did manage to figure out the secret of the titular blue very early in the story, and because this story did not have the emotional resonance of Parker’s Purple and Black, which actually left me in tears I laughed so hard. I can still recommend this slight volume for a highly enjoyable afternoon that will leave you breathless with delight.