fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review K.J. Parker Purple and BlackPurple 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 being given a book by an author I have never read before and finding a gem. I giggled and snickered through many of the letters, and I laughed until I had tears rolling down my cheeks at one point. K.J. Parker unerringly captures the relationship between two college buddies who are thrust into situations for which they were not prepared. Nico becomes emperor because his father, uncles, and older brothers all killed each other in a civil war. Phormio is a political philosopher and a college instructor, so he leads the military from a text book. Many of the letters cover the darker territory of wartime tragedies, but Purple and Black‘s tone swings back and forth between lighthearted teasing and weighty affairs of state, and Parker manages the transitions seamlessly.

I thoroughly enjoyed Purple and Black. Though the big reveal was obvious a mile away, the way it was handled by the characters added a level of heartbreaking reality to the story. In this short volume, Parker wrestles with the issues of idealism, pragmatism, friendship, loyalty and power in such an interesting, entertaining, and complex manner that I’m considering assigning Purple and Black in my next political theory class. (Yes, like Phormio I teach political theory in college, which may have been why I found him so incredibly funny; I could see myself doing the same things he did if I had suddenly been put in charge of the Roman army!)

The true identity of K.J. Parker may be a mystery, but the high quality of her (his?) writing is no secret. I highly recommend Purple and Black for a fast enjoyable read. After this introduction to Parker’s work, I will be definitely seeking out more books by her (him?) in the future.

~Ruth Arnell (2009)

fantasy book review K.J. Parker Purple and BlackPurple and Black is one of Subterranean Press’s novella-length books, and a very fine one, too. It is an epistolary novel, containing letters between an emperor — one whose empire seems very Roman in character — and the former schoolmate he has appointed as the governor of Upper Tremissis, a province that is the focus of an insurgency. Official communications between the two are written in flowerly language in purple ink: “Phormio begs to inform his His Majesty that he has safely arrived at Tremissis City, and has assumed control of the civil and military administration.” The less formal and much lengthier portion of any message is written in the vernacular, in black:

You are, of course, an unmitigated bastard. Not content with dragging me away from my chair at Anassus, which I worked bloody hard to earn and which will not go to that pinhead Atho, you made me waste three months of my life in a military academy, of all places, and now you’ve dumped me here, in the last place on earth, surrounded by snow, soldiers and savages. What the hell did I ever do to you?

Obviously, the former school friend persona is more in evidence than the formal governor persona; and the emperor responds in the same form. It’s clear that both men are young and still idealistic, thrust into positions of power that they’re smart enough to handle as an intellectual exercise, but a bit too naïve to manage as well as more seasoned men might. It’s one thing to read about how to handle an insurgency in Art of War, and pretty much as easy to order soldiers to perform a certain task, but quite a different one to deal with the consequences.

One would suppose that a book about an insurgency and how the government deals with it would either be relatively dry or entirely vicious — or a combination of both. This book isn’t. It’s moving: sad, even bittersweet, much more emotionally touching than I expected when I picked it up. It is so well-written that the reader genuinely feels he knows these characters, and their dilemmas. Seeing what happens to them, then, is painful. This was not the military drama I expected, but something much more.

Purple and Black was my introduction to Parker, and I intend to read everything (s)he ever wrote, over time. I’m delightedly anticipating the hours I’ll be spending in the worlds (s)he’s created.

~Terry Weyna (2013)

Purple and Black — (2009) Novella. Publisher: Subterranean Press is proud to announce a new novella by the enigmatic author of The Company and The Engineer Trilogy. When his father, brothers and uncles wiped each other out in a murderous civil war, Nicephorus was forced to leave the University and become emperor. Seventy-seven emperors had met violent deaths over the past hundred years, most of them murdered by their own soldiers. Hardly surprising, then, that Nico should want to fill the major offices of state with the only people he knew he could trust, his oldest and closest friends. But there’s danger on the northern frontier, and Nico daren’t send a regular general up there with an army, for fear of a military coup. He turns to his best friend Phormio, who reluctantly takes the job. Military dispatches, written in the purple ink reserved exclusively for official business, are a miserable way for friends to keep in touch, at a time when they need each other most. But there’s space in the document-tube for another sheet of paper. Purple and Black will be printed in two colors throughout.


  • Ruth Arnell

    RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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