When I was in Oxford last weekend (in the Oxfam bookshop on St Giles, to be precise, which is extremely good; you must go), I found something remarkable: a K.J. Parker novella that I’d never even heard of before! Unable to believe my luck, I snaffled it and read it all in one go the following day. It was exactly what I needed: undemanding but witty, irreverent and smart in all the right ways. While, like most of Parker’s fiction, Downfall of the Gods has a Grecian tinge, it looks further back in time, beyond the days of the Byzantine-inspired empires in his Engineer and Two of Swords trilogies, to an older time, when men still have to worry about annoying the gods – and the gods themselves can’t always be trusted.
Lord Archias is having a bad day. He’s just murdered his best friend Lysippus, although Lysippus had it coming, after topping a lifetime of bullying with the effrontery of being found in bed with Archias’s wife. To add insult to injury, Archias has done all the right things – gone to the Temple, said the right prayers, and begged humbly for forgiveness – only to find that the woman he’s hired for the day is not in fact a casual prostitute but an embodiment of the Goddess herself. And she’s narked. She’s decided she isn’t going to forgive him, because she quite liked Lysippus’ music. So Lord Archias finds himself in the absurd position of facing a choice between certain death, via execution, and very probable death, via a ridiculous quest dreamed up by a petulant immortal with too much time on her hands.
The Goddess probably has some sympathy with Archias’ sentiments, but she has to make a point. She liked Lysippus a lot, and it irritates her that he’s dead because his music had great potential, and she’s playing a long game beyond the ken of mortal man (and perhaps of her fellow immortals too). Now she’s back to square one, stuck in the middle of a dysfunctional family where no one really likes her, headed by a father who actually is omnipotent and omniscient, her closest confidant a brother whose idea of liaising with mortals is to go round getting pretty girls pregnant. Then an idea occurs to the Goddess, which certainly goes against several different subsections of the Great Covenant with mankind (a.k.a. The Rules), but which might just make things better again. All she has to do is get her father to agree to let her send Archias on a redemptive journey to the ends of the earth…
Anyone who’s read more than one book by Parker will immediately recognise his tone here. Told from the Goddess’s point of view, this is a fun riff on all the classical tales of people journeying into the realms of the dead, whether that’s Odysseus, Hercules, Aeneas or anyone else you care to name. It’s only a novella and so it’s limited in how much ground it can cover – it doesn’t share the dense, meaty knottiness of his full-length books – but I rather enjoyed its take on a squabbling semi-Olympian group of immortals and the poor mortals who have to deal with them. The odd-couple act at the heart of the story is very similar to that which drives The Devil You Know, another delicious tale based on classic stories of mortals dicing with the unknown. Good fun, and perfect stuff for a lazy afternoon when you want something light and fluffy, but with a bit of brain.