Monday, 28 February 2011

Short Fiction Corner | "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong" by K. J. Parker

I marked a lot of firsts last year. More, I think, than can be considered entirely par for the course for a guy in his mid-20s, when short of making a baby or finally getting that blasted book published there's nothing much you can see, or do, or achieve, that in one form or another you haven't already. Yet with TSS, and the expectation that I'd have something at least faintly interesting to say to you all each day - and every day - I found myself reading more widely in 2010; giving the time of day to books and authors I'm afraid to say I'd very likely have ignored before.

Perhaps I would have ended up reading K. J. Parker one day anyway... who can say? As was, one fateful day last Summer, I cosied up with The Folding Knife in large part because its cover bore such a striking image, enjoyed its intent and intelligence a great deal - and have I looked back since? Not for a cotton-pickin' second, no.

In fact in January there I read, reviewed and rather adored The Hammer, the latest standalone novel from the pseudonymous sort, and wished upon finishing it I could somehow find the time to read it all over again, or reach back into Parker's extensive back-catalogue for one of the good old oldies of his and/or hers I'm told I've missed. A few bad eggs in a row, reading-wise - it simply wouldn't do to tell you which just yet - only served to underscore that siren song.

So I added The Company to my tower of books To Be Read, trying not to stress overly much about the entirely unreasonable sense of guilt I felt in so doing, and lo and behold, as if specifically to set my half-maddened mind at ease, along came "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong."

You can read it here - indeed I would urge you to - as part of the stonking Winter edition of Subterranean Magazine, which I count myself quite, quite proud to have subscribed to, way back when it came on paper and cost actual money (especially, I would add, in light of the Atlantic). Also featured in this issue is fiction from genre stalwarts and rising greats such as Larry Niven, Mike Resnick, Jay Lake, Elizabeth Bear, Robert Silverberg, and another of my own favourite authors, the one, the only... Caitlin R. Kiernan.

Come on, now: you know you want to.
And as well you should.

Anyway, what with the circumstances I've explained, "A Small Price for Birdsong" was the first of the short stories I gravitated towards, and what a story, truly. I hadn't read short-form K. J. Parker before - come to that I don't know that he or (sigh) she has even written a great deal - and though I was worried such a smaller-scale narrative as in "A Small Price for Birdsong" might perhaps be unable to match up against the unimaginable cunning and the whacking great emotional impact of Parker's novels proper, it quickly came clear that whatever fears I might have harboured were for naught. This is K. J. Parker on fine form indeed, doing for music what s/he has done in the past for money... and justice; industry... and engineering.

Let me explain.

Our protagonist: a professor of the aural arts, more tolerated for his tenure at a certain academy than admired for his talent - much to his own infinite misery. Our antagonist: an esteemed student of the selfsame professor who seems frustratingly brilliant at everything he sets his sights on. This time, however, Subtilus has set his sights on murder, and when he's caught, and sentenced to death himself, he passes on his final, unfinished symphony to the professor, who must decide whether to sell it as is, or embellish a final few notes and publish it as his own.

Of course the professor's conundrum is rather complicated when Subtilus somehow escapes the noose, and returns to his master bearing an offer which, if agreed, will change the interlocking courses of both their lives.

"A Small Price for Birdsong" is a stunningly good show - a characteristically light yet more often than can be considered occasionally profound exploration of the notion of ownership, of truth as an objective fact shifting and twisting through layer upon layer of perception and subjectivity. As the student surpasses the master, and the master the student, and the weight of the world shifts to balances out the scales, Parker wrings from two typically ambiguous characters deeply at odds with one another a remarkable and natural morality play the equal of any of his or her more expansive narratives... that I've read.

I understand some readers find K. J. Parker's fiction a little cold, a little distant, and though "A Small Price for Birdsong" is perhaps a less judiciously wicked tale than we're used to from this very distinctive storyteller, if you haven't found warmth anywhere in The Folding Knife or The Hammer or The Engineer Trilogy, likely you'll struggle reading this short story too. However, for all those who've yet to experience the insidious delights of K. J. Parker - who might mayhap have wondered whether the novel-length narrative was the best place to test the waters, as it were - there can be no better place to start than here.


PS: I see Jared from Pornokitsch quite beat me to the punch as regards recommending "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong," the cock. (Speaking of which, I'm still waiting!) But certainly as far as this story goes we agree on a great many levels, and I'd urge you to pop on over there to see what he has to say about the fabbiest K. J. Parker freebie ever.

If the pair of us shouting from the blogtops what an incredible short story "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong" is doesn't move you to read the goshdarned thing, I don't know what will.

Seriously, go on now. It's still free, and it's still superb...


  1. There are actually 3 short stories in about a nine month time span from KJ Parker from Subterranean; in the summer 2010 they published Amor Vincia Omnit which is availble online like this one, while in April 2011, A Room with a View appears in Dark Fantasy 2; these last two are set in the author's Studium milieu that was featured in A Rich Full Week from the Swords and dark magic anthology and which bears some resemblance with the Fencer world.

    The Bird story is set in the author's non-magic universe from the recent novellas and novels - The Company, The Folding Knife, The Hammer, Blue and Gold, Purple and Black; there is no "unique" universe there true, but those worlds are all similar and with some hand waving could be regarded as one world at different stages of history and even the Engineer could fit with a little fiddling; all are what our world would look like were the classical world to continue and not be broken by a messianic religion

  2. "PS: I see Jared from Pornokitsch quite beat me to the punch as regards recommending "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong," the cock. (Speaking of which, I'm still waiting!)"

    Waiting for cock???

    (Sorry, I just had too.)