Though I could never truly get into K. J. Parker's The Engineer Trilogy, I thoroughly enjoyed the author's The Company. So when Subterranean Press announced that they were publishing the novella Purple and Black, I was immediately keen to read it.
You are, of course, an unmitigated bastard. Not content with dragging me away
from my chair at Anassus, which I worked bloody hard to earn and which will now
go to that pinhead Atho, you made me waste three months of my life in a military
academy, of all places, and now you've dumped me here, in the last place on
earth, surrounded by snow, soldiers and savages. What the hell did I ever do to
During a bloody civil war during which his father, brothers, and uncles all died, thus wiping out the entire male royal line, Nicephorus had no choice but to leave the University and become emperor. Now His Divine Majesty Nicephorus V, brother of the invincible Sun, father of his people, defender of the faith, emperor of the Vesani, he must try to find a way to escape the fate of the seventy-seven emperors who met violent deaths over the past century, most of them murdered by their own soldiers.
Look, I'm sorry, all right? It is, as they say, a lousy job but someone's got to
do it. A bit like being emperor, yes?
Unfortunately, his reign begins with threats of an insurgency along the northern frontier. Fearing a military coup, Nicephorus refrains from sending a true general with an army. Having filled the major offices of state with his oldest friends from school, he turns to his best friend Phormio to deal with the troubles in the north.
I am not, repeat not, a soldier; I'm an effete, slightly overweight dilettante
scholar who just might one of these days, if I'm lucky and the right people die
and some clown doesn't send me away to the frontier, secure a senior lectureship
at a respectable university. I know, we agreed; give positions of power to
people who'd rather die than have them. But there are limits. The point being,
I'm no bloody good at this.
Oddly enough, both Nicephorus and Phormio are scholars who professed that power is evil and that the Empire should be dissolved when they were students. And although the new emperor tries his best, hell is paved with good intentions. . .
Purple and Black follows the correspondence between two particularly inept individuals in positions of power. The military dispatches, written in the purple ink reserved exclusively for official business, and their personal letters written in black ink.
Human nature. A man will betray his honour, his country and his friend, but the
bond between two people who share a common devotion to hardcore porn is
Reading the witty correspondence between the two men was quite entertaining. Both Nicephorus and Phormio, though far from being the sharpest tools in the shed at times, are endearing fellows.
Everybody in these parts thinks I'm out of my tiny mind, but they're happy
enough to sell us stuff or take our wages, now that there's soldiers everywhere
you look to keep them safe. The idea that the government can be a net provider
of money, rather than a bottomless pit into which their taxes vanish without a
trace, is new and intriguing around here, and in consequence we're rather more
popular than we used to be.
The narrative is filled with the humor and intelligence which have come to characterize K. J. Parker's works. There are a few surprising moments at the end that brings this novella to a satisfying close.
Men like Lamachus are quite definitely an evil means to a good end. I'm writing
this in the chief clerk's office, because my study's just across the yard from
where Lamachus is conducting his interviews; the theory being, if I can't hear
it, it's not happening. Nice theory, but I fancy there's a fallacy in there
somewhere. Men like Lamachus save lives by taking lives. They prevent cruelty
and inhumanity by inflicting it. Men like us let them, because it's for the
greater good, and because we're afraid that, if it wasn't done for us, we might
find it in our hearts to do it ourselves.
All in all, Purple and Black is a cleverly crafted and amusing tale, and it makes for an enjoyable reading experience.
The final verdict: 7.5/10