Purple and Black

April 6, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads)

purplePurple and Black by K.J. Parker


Man. This guy. This guy. How on earth did I not know about K.J. Parker until late last year? The dude’s been writing under this name since 1998! Surely I should have heard something about him before now, right? Ah, well. Better late than never, and all that.

In this novella, Nicephorus reluctantly leaves the university to take the throne. His father, brothers, and uncles have all been murdered, leaving him the only one left to take it, even though he doesn’t want it. Because only seventy-two of the last seventy-seven emperors have died of natural causes, he puts his closest friends from the university in positions of power. This means his good friend Phormio is sent to the edge of the empire as a general to quash a rebellion that’s been forming out there. During that time, they send letters back-and-forth by courier: one official document written in purple ink (to prove it was written by the emperor and his associates); and one unofficial document written in black ink so the two friends can stay in touch. The book is the collection of those letters over the span of several years.

The story starts off in a breezy way, with the general calling his emperor an “unmitigated bastard”. Clearly, these people are friends (made more apparent by the emperor’s response: “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.”), and the tone kept me reading with a small smile on my face. There were several moments that made me chuckle, considering that Nico, Phormio, and their four friends are all learning what it takes to run an empire fresh out of the university.

Purple and Black could have been a light, humorous look at six friends finding themselves thrown into the deep end of life, but Parker is a better writer than that. He uses the story to examine politics and power, refusing to draw any easy conclusions about them. His characters suffer from the idealism of youth, which contrasts sharply with the real and true difficulties of being responsible for an entire nation. That Nicephorus ultimately suffers the same tragedy as seventy-two of the previous seventy-seven emperors is heartbreaking, especially when he took such great pains to prevent it from happening.

Parker’s style is a little stream-of-consciousness, making you think that he just sat down with a thread of an idea and wrote to see where it would take him, but his plots are so intricate that it’s evident he put a lot of thought into the story before writing it down. That has to be the case, because if he could write stories as intricate as this, or The Devil You Know, just on the fly, then he’s much more talented than I first thought.

Look, I know there are a lot of people waiting on The Winds of Winter. Check into K.J. Parker in the meantime. It’s a shame that this guy isn’t more well-known than he already is.


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