Back, as promised, to discuss Purple and Black, a novella by K.J. Parker. A quick Goodreads search showed me that Parker actually has quite a few titles to his name. I hadn’t heard of him until I saw this book float by me at the check-in terminal at work. I won’t lie, the cover art really caught my attention, so I read the quick synopsis on the jacket flap, and then shelved it.
Except my brain wasn’t ready to shelve it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, wondering how an Epistolary fantasy novella would read. And so I wrote the title down, and vowed to add it to my list.
Flash forward a week, and here we are at the Review.
Be ready, this one’s gonna be spoiler-y.
So, as I learned in my Intro to Literature class (though I’m sure some level of my brain already knew this), an Epistolary story is one told by correspondence. Letters, emails, etc,. Parker’s novella is 113 pages long, told by a series of correspondences between Nico (short for Nicephorus) and his best friend, Phormio. Nico is the Emperor, and Phormio is his newly appointed Govenor of Upper Tremissis.
The story takes place in an Alternate-Byzantine, according to the jacket, and though I don’t know the first thing about actual-Byzantine, the language shared by Nico and Phormio seems unlikely to me.
Both of them speak in common slang and euphemism. There’s plenty of cursing, which I’m not generally opposed to, but it felt unnatural given the setting of the tale. Aside from the frequent mention of locations that sound like they’re from a Fantasy world, the letters themselves could be from anyone.
Maybe that’s supposed to help the reader identify with the main characters, but I was a little disappointed. Because the mentions of locations, and a couple battle descriptions from Phormio are the only world-building present in the novella.
So, the main premise is that Nico has been newly crowned Emperor after all his remaining family killed each other off in an effort to gain the throne. He doesn’t trust anyone currently on the cabinet, and so appoints all his college buddies to positions of power. They’re the only people he can trust.
Phormio has been sent to Govern a small city in the northern extreme of the Empire, where there’s been reports of rebellion. And he hates it. He hates the village, the weather, and his position. He never wanted power. Yadda, yadda.
He and Nico bicker back and forth, showing their familiarity and comfort with one another. Phormio complains about freezing to death in Tremissis, Nico sends him a scarf and socks.
It’s funny, but… it seems just so incongruous with a setting that is still waging war with swords and shields. Not the humor, of course, but the delivery of it.
Anyway, as the story goes on, the friends mention their other friends, and the good old days at college. And how they dearly miss their one particularly dead friend. And it’s in moments when he’s mentioned, or when Phormio suffers a defeat, that you really come to like Nico. He’s caring, devoted, and doing his damnedest to do right by the Empire.
And then Phormio betrays him.
You see, and you will see it coming, because it was rather obvious, the dead friend the Nico grieved so much? Not dead. In fact, he’s leading the rebellion, and has Phormio in on it with him.
Phormio begs Nico to see their perspective. He quotes their college selves, and their thoughts on power and politics. He and Gorgias (the not-dead friend) are mad at Nico for not dissolving the Empire and implementing the changes he said he would when they were all drunk in their favorite bar near the school. You see, Nico had a lot of revolutionary ideas when he was young, and so did his friends. And so did we all.
Young Nico and his friends had come to the conclusion that Power corrupted to the point of Evil. That man was meant to be free. That government hobbled man until he could no longer see how enslaved he was, that he would be grateful and beg for his decision to be made for him.
But, with age supposedly comes wisdom. Nico’s only had his throne for a few months, and though he does want to make changes, he has to get some stability first. Which is why he can’t do what Gorgias and Phormio want. He tries to explain, but he knows it won’t matter.
And even after all the hurt, and betrayal, he still writes at the end of his letter that he’s glad to know Gorgias is still alive. Even after his two best friends have declared war on him!
What a great guy! What an outstanding human being! At this point, you’re straight-up rooting for him, and I was seething at Phormio.
And then you read the last correspondence from Phormio to the Emperor, but this time it’s to His Majesty Gorgias. They ousted Nico, and though it’s customary to kill any threat to the throne, they allowed him to live. They just gouged his eyes out. You know, can’t run an Empire blind.
After all they’d said and promised, Gorgias was unable to do anything any differently than Nico. He doesn’t dissolve the Empire, he doesn’t even attempt to cast the power from himself. Though he claims he never wanted to be Emperor, much like Nico.
And the finally letter is from Nico to Phormio. He’s living in a monastery, where Monks feed him and read to him. He can’t do much for himself, being blind, but he’s not unhappy. In fact, he says he’s happier there than he’d been in a long time. He writes to Phormio, telling him of Gorgias’s visit, and asks that Phormio himself come see him soon.
For a little book that started out so funny, it ended on a very sad note, and raised some serious questions.
Parker plays with themes of Power and Good and Evil. What makes men Evil? Is it Power? Knowledge? Ambition? Gorgias saw himself as a revolutionary, doing the right thing, and then became the exact thing he worked so hard to be rid of. At the cost of a dear friend’s well being.
But, Nico… Nico never came off as power-hungry or evil, even when he sat on the throne. And after his “retirement”, he seemed even more at peace, having witnessed his friends’ failure. He’s free from the responsibility of the throne, and free from rebuke. He behaved and acted as best he could when his best friends laid siege to his empire. And then they tortured him and left him an invalid in a monastery where they wouldn’t have to look upon what they did.
So, is Parker claiming that freedom lies in morality? Knowing that you did the right thing?
I’m still not entirely sure. This story was, obviously, quite political. Much more so than my normal reads. I liked it, but calling it a fantasy novella seems like a stretch to me. Or at least, it doesn’t fit with what I typically think of for fantasy. There’s little world-building, the setting is an alternate-Byzantine, which makes it fantasy by nature, but there’s no magic. There’s no imaginative or mythical creatures.
There’s two men writing letters to each other to the tune of betrayal.
Add to it that the plot was rather transparent, and this story wasn’t that great. But, I’m not so sure it was meant to be. I think this novella was written with a very real message to convey. Parker wanted to explore specific themes, and force he readers to confront them as well.
I think the characters and plot were just the best method for him to do that.
It’s a short book, so if it still sounds interesting to you, you should give it a try. Or if you’ve already read it, let’s compare notes!
See you soon,