Under My Skin, collection of stories by K. J. Parker

Teresa Edgerton

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Under My Skin, by K. J. Parker

This is a collection of Parker’s (Tom Holt’s) short fiction—which is actually not all that short, since the stories are all of novelette or novella length—with the edition of one shortish novel. Some of the stories have appeared separately elsewhere (but are no longer available as such now that they have been collected) others were originally published in magazines, and some appear here for the first time.

These are stories of exorcists and demons; holy men and false prophets; princes and common soldiers; artists, alchemists, and forgers; rogues and basically decent men who are nevertheless forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, sometimes only to discover that they made the wrong choice. These stories are often amusing in a darkly humorous way, sometimes horrifying (but, fortunately for readers like me ,Parker doesn’t focus on the gruesome details much), and often as twisty as a bag of pretzels—which can also be said of some of his protagonist/narrators. The amount of research or personal expertise on a wide variety of subjects (metallurgy, economics, battle strategy, and so much more) that he brings to these stories is dazzling.

When I bought this book, I was hoping I would find it full of stories as satisfying and original as those in a previous collection, Academic Exercises. Perhaps that was an unrealistic expectation, since after reading so many of a particular author’s stories over the years, patterns begin to emerge, and the sense of reading something breathtakingly original begins to fade. You may not be able to guess what comes next, but (at least in some stories) you already know how things are going to end.

My two favorite stories in the collection turned out to be two that I had already read before, “Mightier Than the Sword” and “Prosper’s Demon.” These were well worth another reading, so I don’t complain about that. And some of the other stories I did like quite a bit: “The Best Man Wins,” (although this was one of those with a telegraphed ending), “The Big Score,” and the novel “Relics.” But with some I felt that they existed more to showcase that dazzling amount of knowledge he has, rather than to tell a compelling story. That may not, of course, have been his purpose in writing them. More likely his interest in particular subjects simply took him down fascinating rabbit holes, so that (at least in this reader’s mind) plots and characterization suffered. Mind you, even second-rate Parker is still very good, and if one were reading his work for the first time, even these stories might have impressed.

Anyway, a fine collection overall, especially for a reader new to this author and doesn’t know what to expect. But if you only ever read one anthology of his stories, I would recommend Academic Exercises instead.
 

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