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Blue And Gold by K.J. Parker

01/03/2011. Contributed by Martin Jenner

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pub: Subterranean Press. 99 page deluxe hardback. Price: $25.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-327-3.

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KJ Parker, whoever he, she or it may be, seems to have an enduring interest in good and evil. From the ‘Fencer Trilogy’ to last year’s ‘The Folding Knife’, inevitably the author’s novels can be boiled down to the same pure distillate – a brittle, crystalline discussion of whether evil even has any meaning.

Take ‘Blue And Gold, for example: a hundred-odd pages of first-person narration by a man who murdered his wife. But the protagonist – note the deliberate avoidance of the word ‘hero’ – of the novella is Saloninus, a philosopher and alchemist with a chequered past and most likely a chequered future, too. He’s charming enough that you almost forget the consciously off-hand callousness with which he introduces himself and the tone with which he speaks about himself seems to waver between a winking ‘aren’t I awful?’ and a core of genuine self-loathing beneath the roguish wit. He tells you himself often enough, and apologises constantly to the reader for his omissions, evasions and outright lies during the course of the narrative. I’m sorry, by the way, that I lied to you earlier, he tells us near the end. Couldn’t resist. (p.95)

So what are we to make of this most unreliable of storytellers? If Parker intends us to believe Saloninus’ lies are woven to deceive, then why draw attention to them so overtly? There’s a term, ‘lampshading’, which describes an attempt to hide something by drawing attention to it in such a way that it becomes part of the background, not longer worthy of attention. Parker’s Saloninus is doing it, I think, but the question of why is never really answered. What is his motive supposed to be? Is he telling the story for the sheer pleasure of it or is all the misdirection part of some greater design? Just who is he talking to, anyway?

There’s a clue on the first page, in a genuinely funny bit of misdirection wherein what reads like a stuffy historical biography of Saloninus turns out to be Saloninus himself playing games, followed up with a warning against trusting anyone who speaks about themselves in the third person. But there’s a level of honesty below the irreverence which suggests the alchemist’s true audience: posterity. The text is littered with asides as if to some far-future history student, enough to make me wonder if this whole untrustworthy narrative isn’t intended to be Saloninus’ idea of a lesson in critical thinking.

Taken in terms of the bare plot, there’s almost nothing to think about. On killing his wife, whether by accident or design, Saloninus spends the majority of the novella either evading or escaping a variety of soldierly types. Some belong to the city guard, who’d no doubt hang him for the killing or for his colourful criminal past. Others are in the employ of Prince Phocas, his alchemical patron, old college friend and brother-in-law, who might just hold a grudge over his sister’s death.

In between attempts to flee the city, Saloninus spends his time in a variety of alchemical activities, from synthesising explosives to experimental attempts at the elixir of life or turning lead into gold – his description of which, he cheerfully informs the reader, contains deliberate errors to discourage those who might be tempted to try and follow the process. Much the same as with his philosophy, it seems. What do you make of a man who deliberately sabotages his own arguments before committing them to print?

More deception. It would be easy for all this to become too much, to force the reader to throw up their hands and throw down the book, but Parker just about manages to keep her balance on such a narrow line. Saloninus is a charming enough rogue to keep you reading, but more importantly his ever-shifting proclamations of intent slowly reveal a glimmer of truth at the heart and the answer to the one question he seems reluctant to answer: namely why he’s so desperate to escape.

‘Blue And Gold’ also provides another example of the author’s ability to take a mundane practice – generally the central creative process around which the narrative focuses, and ‘Blue And Gold’s alchemy is no exception – and transmute it, creating an almost transcendental metaphor encompassing the whole of human suffering. It’s less overt than it has been in the past, mostly because the spotlight here is instead on figuring out the depth and intent of Saloninus’ deceptions.

That change of focus contributes in part to ‘Blue And Gold’s comparative thematic slightness. The usual muddy morality is present, but it’s an order of magnitude less sophisticated than, say, ‘The Company’. Perhaps it’s the witty tone and the sense of being toyed with, but I think it more likely that the fluidity with which the story changes shape leaves the reader somewhat uninvested in the tale – by necessity, as the events recanted might have occurred differently: in a different order, for a different reason or even never happened at all. It’s hard to make yourself care all that much, once you’ve been burned the first time.

No, it’s the strength of Saloninus’ characterisation which keeps ‘Blue And Gold’ from becoming little more than an intellectual exercise, keeps it entertaining on a narrative level. The novella’s other characters suffer by contrast, reduced to barely-there sketches of personality or motivation. While you could read that shallowness as the product of Saloninus’ lack of empathy, it seems more likely that they simply lack the necessary page time to manifest a third dimension. Only Phocas benefits from anything like a reasonable amount of narratorial attention, but his own motivations appear to flip-flop so much – without the benefit of seeing his internal processes at work, as we do with Saloninus – that when clarity comes it’s a somewhat disappointing revelation.

Nonetheless, while ‘Blue And Gold’ might be one of Parker’s lesser works, it’s still an intelligent, thoughtful little book which seems likely to please a patient reader. If you’ve no tolerance for post-modernism, however, you might want to give it a miss.

Martin Jenner

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