Academic Exercises is K. J. Parker’s first collection of short fiction, and I absolutely loved it. Many of the stories involve a school of magic, although its practitioners call it philosophy, called the Studium. This where the title of the book comes from. Parker understands academic infighting and all that goes with, although I found that aspect of the book a little tame it.
One institution I was at for a couple of years (many years ago, not where I am now) had an instructor who was running for Congress get arrested in the parking lot of IHOP while waving a machete and screaming about the right to bear arms; one department head murdered in his home by his same sex lover; and one adjunct prof pick up a woman hitchhiker, take her back to his place to do a few lines of coke and instead lock her in his closet for a couple of weeks as his love slave. (She managed to escape; he jumped bail and was caught about a year later after a shoot-out in Oklahoma.) And that was just in a two year period. Like I said, Parker’s academia is tame compared to that.
Most of the stories are told in the first person, but the narrator changes with each tale. Another common theme is someone, often in academia or the arts, trying to pull a fast one on someone else. Things usually don’t turn out the way the narrator expects.
Of course, you can’t always trust the narrator. The alchemist in “Blue and Gold” opens the story by telling you he killed his wife earlier that day. The means and motive, though, change as he gives you more information. And in “Purple and Black” , the correspondence between an idealistic young monarch and one of his college chums he’s appointed governor of a rebellious province hides a number of secrets. In the original stand-alone book (OOP), the official correspondence was in purple and the unofficial letters between the two friends was in black. In the ebook, the fonts are different.
The stories are set in a common world, and they take place over a wide number of years. Centuries if I’m reading the dates correctly. And they aren’t in chronological order. A number of stories mention the worship of the Invincible Sun. We learn in “The Sun and I” that the Invincible Sun was created by a group of spoiled rich young men who were too lazy to work and too proud to beg. Only once they had created their religion, their deity turned out to be real.
There’s a deep thread of irony in these tales, along with a great deal of dry wit. I found these stories compulsively readable, and there were times I would be reading one when I really should have been reading something someone had sent me for review. I read Academic Exercises because I had read a few of Parker’s short stories and wanted to read more. Many of them were originally published in Subterranean Online or other places, and I’ve included links to them here.
“Illuminated” tells the horrifying results when an investigator from the Studium and his aid discover an illuminated manuscript in an abandoned tower. Not everyone can master magic well enough to have a career at the Studium, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t use their ability to support themselves in “One Little Room an Everywhere.” And what if those wondrous lands on old maps actually existed. That’s the case in “Let Maps to Others“, but the land isn’t quite what it’s supposed to be. Competition in the musical arts can be vicious in “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong“. And of course some people with magical talent go rogue, as we see in “Amor, Vincent, Omnia“.
Also included in Academic Exercises are three historical essays dealing with siege engines, armor, and the advances in technology that caused changes in swords through the years. Unlike many historical texts, I found these fascinating reading.
K. J. Parker is a pseudonym. The author’s real identity and even gender haven’t been revealed. I don’t care. K. J. Parker is now on my must-read list.