Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Review of Let Maps to Others by K.J. Parker

As of 2011, A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong was the only awarded title in K.J. Parker’s fast growing ouevre.  A simple yet fluid and engaging piece, the author stayed with the groove (setting, style, story set up, etc.) and produced another solid novella Let Maps to Others (2012) one year later.  Bearing much, much in common with Birdsong, music is not the central device, however; Parker delves into the value of historical documents, trade, and tells an engaging tale of a ruse gone bad in the process.  It became the second award winner for Parker.

Let Maps to Others is the story of an unnamed scholar and his quest to discover the lost coordinates of Essecuvio—a place “where the soil and climate are the best in the world, the people are gentle, sophisticated, wealthy beyond measure and wildly generous, and where they’d never seen a lemon.”.  Discovered by the intrepid Aeneas Peregrinus three centuries prior, the sea captain died unexpectedly soon thereafter, taking the knowledge of its whereabouts with him to the grave and leaving generations of scholars, dukes, and merchants to speculate on its location.  His main rival Carchedonius requesting a meeting one day, the narrator is delighted to discover that a manuscript thought lost to time has been recovered, but is disappointed to learn the document does not contain the long sought after coordinates.  But it is watching what Carchedonius does with the document after he finished readig it that sets the story alight, and casts the narrator into unexpected waters. 

And that is just the beginning of the story.  About halfway through Let Maps to Others is an invisible hinge.  It flips the story from Medieval-esque realism to fantasy/magic realism without missing a beat; the reader is simply transported to a new (metaphorical) stage with no fanfare.  The story so compelling, in fact, many readers will miss the commentary tucked neatly beneath the change.  The hinge converts a simple rivalry of scholars into a discussion on the value and authenticity of historical records, and likewise the intents backing documents which survive to this day.  The fact the novella operates at these two levels is part of its success.

But one still has to wonder about the similarities to A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong.  Both novellas feature main characters who have the following in common: renowned personages of learning (in one case a scholar, the other a musician), both are experts and masters of their subjects, a love/hate relationship exists with their 'enemy', each are unnamed, each speak in the exact same character voice, both are first-person narrators, each is the youngest ever to hold their (preeminent) post, both have fathers who died not long ago, and both participate in the simulation of a piece of realia for personal benefit.  It is thus nice that halfway through Let Maps to Others Parker abandons Birdsong’s storyline, which had been pitch perfect parallel to that point, also.

In the end, Let Maps to Others is a lucidly written Atlantis story with a hint of sub-text.  While the narrator’s voice does not belie his position (it is throughout the speech of a common man, not that of a scholar), the story he tells grabs the reader attention, leading them on an interesting journey of cheating and discovery.  As Parker has been wont to include in other works, there is notable content on merchants, trade, and the economic system backing the characters’ decisions and behavior.  All in all a story to chew over for a moment or two.

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