The Father of Lies
by K.J. Parker
Cover Artist: Vincent Chong
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Press Hardcover / eBook ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596068537
Date: 31 January 2018
Father of Lies is the second collection of short fiction by fantasy author K.J. Parker. The collection is tilted towards novellas with about half its length taken up by four novellas, several of which had seen print as chapbooks. Unlike his novels, which tend to eschew magic and supernatural elements, each of these stories contains, and centers around, supernatural creatures or characters with magical powers. We get Gods, a pair of stories concerning contracts with the devil, witches, and more.
The stories collected here certainly showcase Parker's unique narrative voice, his wry humor and plots full of unexpected twists. Also on display is his concern with morality, with stories designed to raise questions such as whether it is better to be well-intentioned but have one's actions cause suffering and misery, or selfish but have one's actions bring good consequences, and eschewing easy answers.
However, the stories here are missing the element that, for me, ignited his previous work into true masterworks--character. The characters in many of these stories are less gripping, less tortured, and ultimately less interesting than the protagonists of previous Parker fiction. Furthermore, many of the themes of these stories are repetitions of themes explored in his other work. It is ironic that his first collection was titled Academic Exercises when it is these stories that end up feeling like just that--exercises. They are excellently done exercises, but they lack the heart and fire of his earlier work.
Compare "The Things We Do for Love", the opening novella, to "Let Maps to Others", a story from Academic Exercises. Both deal with the question of whether intentions matter or merely results, by focusing on despicable protagonists whose every action turns out to be the best thing they could have done for mankind. But "The Things We Do for Love" mixes this with an immortal and nearly omnipotent witch whose presence leaches much of the tension from the story, and the protagonist never manages the depth or complexity of the one from "Let Maps to Others".
"The Last Witness", the second novella, starts off well introducing us to a man with the unique talent of stealing memories. This is a fertile theme, full of issues of memory, culpability, and guilt. But the protagonist just never quite comes together. He changes goals and priorities frequently, weakening our sense of just who he is as a person, and when his dark secret is revealed (he is a K.J. Parker character, of course, he has a dark secret), we don't really understand him well enough for it to land. The story feels cluttered--too many elements competing for space.
I previously reviewed Downfall of the Gods here at SFrevu, so I won't repeat my thoughts, but it is also not my favourite of Parker's work.
The best of the four novellas by a long way is "The Devil You Know". This story brings back the fascinating amoral genius from "Black and Gold", Saloninus. Here he makes a literal deal with the devil, to the consternation of the devil (well, demon) who is both the maker of the deal and the narrator. Saloninus is a genius, a kind of mix of Socrates, Nietzsche, and Leonardi da Vinci, so why would he bargain away an eternity of happiness for the torments of hell, in exchange for just a few more decades of life? He must be up to something, and trying to see what his plot may be is both fun and fascinating. The whole story is a joy, and Parker is always one step ahead of the reader, just as Saloninus is always a step ahead of his infernal business partners.
Of the short stories, they are similarly a bit of a mixed bag. Some, such as "Safe House" and "I Met a Man who Wasn't There", are entertaining but slight, without much meat to them. The best two are "Heaven Thunders Truth", which does a nice job of investigating the role of truth and lies in both life and government, and "The Dragon Slayer of Merebarton", which is an unheroic but touching tale of a middle-aged knight who must divert his attention from increasing crop yields to deal with a surprise dragon attack.
There are many very entertaining stories in this collection, but compared to Academic Exercises it is a bit of a disappointment. There are some gems in this collection, and for fans of Parkers work there is much to enjoy. For others, I would recommend tracking down Academic Exercises or some of the novels first.