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Purple and Black by K. J. Parker

Purple and Black by K. J. Parker
Book Name: Purple and Black
Author: K. J. Parker
Publisher(s): Subterranean Press
Formatt: Hardback (Special Edition)
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: July 30, 2009

Subterranean Press recently announced a new novella from K. J. Parker, the enigmatic author of The Company and The Engineer Trilogy. As with all Subterranean Press Novella’s these were limited, in this case to 250 numbered copies signed by the author and 1500 fully cloth-bound hardcover copies…incredibly they have all now sold out.

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.

– – –

Characterization: 8/10
Nico and Phormio are old college friends who, at the start of the novella, find themselves in an odd relationship: Nico has become Emperor, and Phormio has been dispatched as a military governor. The interplay between these characters is wonderful, and despite the fact that the entire novella is made up of letters back and forth, I felt as if I really got to know both of them. No complaints here.

Plotting and Pacing: 9/10
Enough events transpire during the plot of this novella to fill a doorstopper fantasy. I’m happy to say that the epistolary form helps move everything along at a nice, brisk pace that doesn’t let up until the ending. Sometimes there are times when you really don’t want to read another description of a dark forest or a ferocious beast, so KJ Parker’s novella is a nice departure from the norm.

Setting: 4/10
The novella is set in some kind of Byzantine-esque alternate history. I don’t really get much of a sense from the setting except that it is vaguely medieval. I only gather this much because of the means with which they write, the food that they eat, and because of the descriptions of the soldiers. I feel a bit guilty even judging this category, but the fact is that the setting is relatively unimportant here. The lack of a fully-realised setting (almost impossible in an epistolary novella) was by no means detrimental to my enjoyment of the story as a whole.

Style and Themes: Style 4/5 and Themes 4/5
KJ Parker and her/his protagonists are straight to the point. As previously mentioned, Purple and Black is written in an epistolary format, where the reader is able to see both the ritualized communication of their official dispatches (written in purple) and the back-and-forth banter of their unofficial messages. Parker infuses a great deal of humour into the text even as he/she portrays some of the dirtier aspects of politics and war.

Total: 29/40
This novella was a wonderful surprise for me. I’d been hearing about KJ Parker for a while now, so I picked this up at the library to try a few pages. I read about half of it before taking it home (at which point I finished it and encouraged my father to read it as well). It was definitely worth the read. I’ve heard that some of his/her longer works get bogged down in describing things probably not worth describing, but this is not an issue here. Definitely get your hands on it if the opportunity arises!

Grading: Note that “5” is an average grade for each category, unexciting but still decent. Therefore, any novel that scores above twenty is above average and thus better than most of the other stuff floating around in bookshelves (at least in my opinion).

Grading Scale:
01-09: Nigh unreadable
10-19: Get it from the library
20-24: A modest endorsement
25-34: Highly recommended
35-40: A must-read!


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