Friday, 10 August 2012

Short Story Corner | Let Maps To Others by K. J. Parker

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the lead story in the Summer 2012 issue of Subterranean Press Magazine. "To Be Read Upon Your Waking" was a real treat, and it's great to see Robert Jackson Bennett on the receiving end of such recognition, but for my money - not, I should stress, that I spent any - "Let Maps To Others" by K. J. Parker is a hair's breadth better than Bennett's very fine fairytale.

It begins, as ever with the work of this wildly witty writer, brilliantly:
There is such a place. And I have been there.

They all say that, don’t they? They say; I met someone once who spent five years there, disguised as a holy man. Or; the village headman told me his people go there all the time, to trade timber and flour for spices. Or; the priest showed me things that had come from there—a statuette, a small, curiously-fashioned box, a pair of shoes, a book I couldn’t read. Or; from the top of the mountain we looked out across the valley and there it was, on the other side of the river, you could just make out the sun glinting off the spires of the temples. Or; I was taken there, I saw the Great Gate and the Forbidden Palace, I sat and drank goat-butter tea with the Grand Master, who was seven feet tall and had his eyes, nose and mouth set in the middle of his chest.

You hear them, read them. The first, second, third time, you believe. The fourth time, you want to believe. The fifth time, you notice a disturbing pattern beginning to emerge—how they were always so close they could hear the voices of the children and smell the woodsmoke, but for this reason or that reason they couldn’t go the last two hundred yards and had to turn back (but it was there, it is there, it’s real, it really exists). The sixth time breaks your heart. By the seventh time, you’re a scholar, investigating a myth.

I am a scholar. I have spent my entire life investigating what I now firmly believe to be a myth. But there is such a place. And I have been there.
This sumptuously circular excerpt is evidence enough, I think, of why I believe K. J. Parker to be amongst genre fiction's foremost talents.

And at long last, it appears I'm no longer alone (or as near as dammit) in that assertion, because of late the blogosphere has been abuzz with talk of Parker's new novel, Sharps. Which I need not add makes me very happy - this breakthrough has been an age in the making - alas, my happiness has been blunted somewhat by the sad fact that I'm going to have to stop referring to the rising pseudonymous star as fantasy's most under-appreciated author.

But hey, all's well that ends well!

In any event, like the mind behind Mr. Shivers' discomfiting contribution to the latest edition of Subterranean Press Magazine, "Let Maps To Others" is also on the long side, at 25,000 words — and the stories are thematically similar to boot.

Both, in a sense, are about discovery; both revolve around the systematic investigation of the unknown, indeed the unknowable. In "To Be Read Upon Your Waking," Bennett's protagonist becomes obsessed by a ruin in the woods which ultimately opens a door into time. Meanwhile, in "Let Maps To Others," Parker's single-minded scholar has spent his entire adult life extrapolating a map of the legendary island of Essecuivo from the only surviving sources. In this pursuit, he is bitterly at odds with another addict.
I should explain about Carchedonius. He’s a fine scholar. He’s painstaking, insightful, clear-headed, occasionally brilliant, always worth listening to. His work on the manuscript tradition of Thraso’s Dialogues was what started me on the road to my finest hour, the deciphering of the Sunao Codex. Between us, we know everything there is to know about Aeneas, and Essecuivo. All in all, it’s a shame we hate each other the way we do.

But that can’t be helped, any more than you can get an injunction to stop the winter. The stupid thing is, neither of us can account for it. I’ve never done him any real harm, though not for want of trying, and all his wild schemes to encompass my downfall have failed or backfired on him. Apparently he has some kind of grudge based on some relative of his losing a lot of money when the Company went under. If that’s really the case, he must’ve nursed it like a shepherd’s wife with an orphan lamb. I think I hate him so much because he hates me, though I’m not sure I didn’t hate him first. In any case, it’s been going on since we were both seventeen-year-old freshmen. I guess it’s an interest for both of us; cheaper than collecting pre-Mannerist miniatures, slightly more exciting than watching the donkey-cart races.
So, when Carchedonius finds proof that his rival's assertions were correct, thus definitively disproving his own competing theory, he does what any arch-enemy would: he destroys the evidence, but only after showing it to our man, who - thus spurned - takes his nemesis' deception to the next level, forging a version of the very document that Carchedonius can only disprove by confessing to his own terrible transgression.

This lie, then, this rivalry, becomes the cornerstone of a long and torturous trip to Essecuivo which of course spirals out of hand, costing the lives of many hundred men. And where, one wonders, lays the blame?

"Let Maps To Others" is a sly, sinuous narrative with - if I'm not mistaken - loose ties to The Company, K. J. Parker's first standalone fantasy, and at 25,000 words, it strikes an ideal balance between the prolonged obfuscation that can come to frustrate in Parker's long-form fiction and the necessarily abbreviated scope of his or her short stories.

(I'm currently inclined towards the latter answer, incidentally.)

It's characteristically twisty and oh so deliciously tricky... yet somehow, at the same time, fairly straightforward. Parker's talent for condensing complex narratives - or else confusing simple ones in such a way as to make them seem more involved than they are - is on superb form in "Let Maps To Others," and I'd recommend it to all and sundry, whatever their exposure to K. J. Parker in the past.

I don't know if "Let Maps To Others" reaches quite the same heights as the lately acclaimed "A Small Price To Pay For Birdsong" - which you may read more about here - but Parker's new novella is a stunner, still. It's that rare story that leaves you feeling smarter for having read it, and it's currently available online for the princely sum of nothing.

Well, what are you waiting for? :)

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