For all the ambiguity surrounding the identity/gender/etc. of K.J. Parker, there is at least one thing for certain: they know how to write stories. 2011’s A Small Price for Birdsong is a solid novella that presents a surface rendering of a composer dealing with success and morality in all too human fashion. Winner of Parker’s first genre award (the World Fantasy), the story comes well recommended.
A Small Price for Birdsong is the story of an unnamed music professor, and opens in the cell of his most brilliant student, Aimeric Subtilius of Bohec, as the man awaits death by hanging. The professor attempting to coax out of Subtilius the theme to the last movement of his unfinished symphony before he is sent to the gallows. But the condemned man refuses to give it up, saying death is greater place for his music to reside than with the populace that would see him put to death. Seeking the final movement only for the passion of music, the professor walks away dejected that he will never hear the beauty of what could have been. It is thus with great surprise he learns of Subtilius escape. But even more surprising is when the escapee turns up in his study one evening with a deal too sweet to pass up.
Strength or weakness (depending what expectations and reading experiences the reader brings to the book), A Small Price for Birdsong is a surface reading of morals in continual response to an unraveling situation—this thing we call life. I say ‘surface reading’ as Parker’s narrative rarely scratches the surface of emotion or feeling, for example like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but instead allows circumstance and behavior to dictate the story’s flow, and ultimately the message. Honesty playing its part in the story’s success, the novella possesses the color of human morality: gray, but just not the emotional depth it could.
The only quibble with the novella is the everyday, untidy delivery. See the following passage:
“Afterwards, the marquis got up and thanked me–as soon as he joined me on the podium, the sun must’ve come out from behind a cloud or something, because the light through the windows suddenly changed from red to blue, and instead of burning, we were drowning–and then the provost of the university presented me with an honorary doctorate, which was nice of him, and made a long speech about integrity in the creative arts. The audience got a bit restive, but I was getting paid for being there, so I didn’t mind a bit.”
In this paragraph can be found numerous extraneous bits and pieces: ‘must’ve’, ‘or something’, ‘which was nice of him’, and ‘a bit’. This is not the voice of the land’s most renowned music scholar and composer. Yet the entire story—presented in the first-person as it is—possesses this same quotidian tone. I realize this is personal preference and will end it at that; I’m sure such continual winks and nods are precisely what endear Parker to many.
In the end, A Small Price for Birdsong is a strong tale of human morality in a Medieval-esque scene featuring composers of juxtaposed creative attitudes. No proselytizing, Parker lets the circumstances and characters define one view of competition, forgiveness, shame, motivation, and everything between, leaving the reader to ponder over the meaning in the afterglow. Though it is told in the first-person, the novella nevertheless would be a nice introduction to Parker’s work for any who have not encountered it before. For existing fans it simply is a must read.