The Devil You Know (2016): K.J. Parker


This is the first story I’ve read by K.J. Parker; or rather, the first I’ve read under that name. For K.J. Parker, as everyone now knows, is a pseudonym of Tom Holt, the author of gleeful comic novels set in Ancient Greece, and (as Thomas Holt) the slightly less successful Viking epic Meadowland. I’ve enjoyed Holt’s work under his own name and so was tempted to dip my toe into his fantasy efforts, courtesy of this short novel published by Tor. I absolutely couldn’t resist the blurb. This is a novella of wit, good, evil, ambition and sheer outright nerve; despite its brevity it reads like a mashup of Faust and Good Omens. And you should know me well enough to know that I think that’s a very good thing.

It’s an age-old problem. Say a man sells his soul to the devil. It’s happened before. In fact, it’s happened so many times that the Department has a standard contract for it: lawyer-proof, watertight, sign on the line. The customer benefits from rejuvenation, a demon servant for the term of the contract, and unlimited wealth and power. Then, at the end of the term, the customer’s natural lifespan runs out and his soul is taken down into hell. It’s straightforward and everyone benefits, some for longer than others. There’s just one catch. A contract requires everyone to play by the rules, and our Narrator – smart, promising, top-of-his-game – is about to find himself up against a very tricky customer.

Saloninus is the greatest philosopher in the world. His works have demolished some of the most complex questions known to man: the existence of good and evil; the value of conventional morality; and the best way to live. The Narrator is quite a fan. Indeed, the first thing he does on being assigned to Saloninus is to get him to sign one of his books. It seems quite a coup to get a soul like this onto the balance: Divisional Command can’t help but be pleased. But, as Saloninus signs his soul away, the Narrator begins to feel his first flickers of doubt; and that’s not a common feeling for him. Usually the Department knows they have a soul in the bag. But the Narrator is beginning to suspect that Saloninus is not only a great thinker, but also an incorrigible liar and a man so untrammelled by principle that he would cheerfully write an entire treatise proving the sky is purple, just for the hell of it. Could it possibly be that the Department have met their match?

Holt is no less amusing writing as Parker than he is as Holt, in his best classical comedies. He gives us a demoncracy that we would all recognise: not the pitchforks and fire of myth (so passé), but a rubber-stamping, report-filing, labyrinthine bureaucracy. Our Narrator may be a demon in the employ of the Father of Lies, but he’s basically a decent sort who delights in art, music and literature and basically just wants to do a good job. The customer is always right, after all. Except when he isn’t. And our Narrator is beginning to wonder whether his great idol Saloninus can be trusted as far as he could throw him.

Set in a fantastical world that feels a bit like Ancient Greece, a bit like Byzantium and a bit like the Middle Ages, this is a little spritz of divinely-ordained humour which looks at the small print and footnotes of the decision to sell one’s soul to the powers of darkness. As Saloninus dances rings around his frustrated, indentured demon servant, you truly do begin to find yourself having some sympathy for the devil.

P.S. Little did I realise, when I was reading this, that it’s actually the second book Holt has written about Saloninus. This makes sense, as the story is stuffed full of references to his unbelievably colourful life. Looks like I’ll have to read Blue and Gold to find out a bit more about our conniving philosopher…

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5 thoughts on “The Devil You Know (2016): K.J. Parker

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    I’m glad you finally found your way to K. J. Parker who, I suspect, is the most interesting of Holt’s writer incarnations. His early trilogies have a tendency to get bogged down by an excess of detail at times, but with his switches to single novels and novellas he really hit his stride. I really need to read more by him himself, but what I have read so far has all been excellent. He is not always as funny as here, though, and his full-length novels tend in fact be rather grim affairs overall, but never quite without his trenchant sense of humour (which, in hindsight, appears to be a dead giveaway for the true identiy of K. J. Parker which for quite some time was a well-kept secret). I called him “the thinking person’s Joe Abercrombie” once and still think that this is quite a fit description.

    Looking forward to more reviews on K. J. Parker by you as you’ll hopefully continue to explore his work! 🙂

    • The Idle Woman says:

      I remembered our discussion about him a while ago! And yes, if you’ve read both Tom Holt and this, then there are definite parallels in the sense of humour. For my next expedition into Parker, I think I’m going to try The Last Witness, another novella published by Tor, with another interesting concept at its heart. For now I think I’ll hold off on his trilogies – I have several fantasy series on the go already (or about to be on the go) and if I take on many more multi-book series I won’t know whether I’m coming or going… Haven’t read Joe Abercrombie yet either, though I’ve had The Blade Itself on my Kindle for years. So much to read….!!! 😀

  2. James says:

    Hi – thanks for the recommendation – I enjoyed this very much indeed, and would not have expected something quite so light having read some of K.J. Parker’s rather grimmer trilogies. If you haven’t read it and fancy something similar and snack-size – there’s a wonderful Neil Gaiman short story called ‘How To Sell The Ponti Bridge’ in the Way Of The Wizard anthology which is a similarly witty confection. Also the anthology Rogues with George R R Martin has a heap of good short stories in on a related theme. I’m a huge fan of the blog – please keep up the good work and immaculate taste!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hi James, thanks for the suggestion of Gaiman’s story, which I haven’t read (and thanks for your lovely words about the blog!). Nor have I read Martin’s Rogues, although of course I’ve been sorely tempted for a while – how could I not be, with that title?! Very pleased to hear that you too enjoyed this one. I’ve just finished reading another of Parker’s novellas – The Last Witness – which is ‘t quite as fun as this, but equally sharp and ironic.

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