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…