Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review: Downfall of the Gods by K.J. Parker

Cover of Downfall of the Gods, featuring a gold-tinged statue of a woman in vaguely Ancient Greek dress. A grey border surrounds the image.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Before we go any further, you ought to know DOWNFALL OF THE GODS is the latest Subterranean Press novella from K.J. Parker. It’s available in a signed, limited edition of 1000, rendering it unlikely to show up on your local bookstore's shelves. Likewise, your library may choose to allocate their funds elsewhere1.

This can make them difficult for the casual browser to track down, but worry not! Subterranean's limited editions are always available through the publisher's website, with copies available (but not, I believe, 100% guaranteed) on Amazon, too. The price point is high, but if you’re a book collector and authorial uber-fan these editions are well worth your consideration. Subterranean uses beautiful binding techniques to turn beautiful paper and beautiful cloth (or leather) into beautiful books that feel good in the hand and look great on a shelf.

They sometimes sell out during the preorder period, too, which is why I'm reviewing this one so far in advance of its March 31st release date. I want the interested parties among you to have a proper shot at it.

If you’re less of a collector, your entertainment budget is small, or you use a screen reader, Subterranean usually releases their exclusive publications as affordably-priced ebooks a year or so after the limited editions have sold out. It means waiting (and waiting until you’re Stateside, in some cases, as many of the books aren’t licensed for digital sale outside the US), but it renders the stories accessible to anyone with a computer and $3-6 to spare.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about DOWNFALL OF THE GODS itself.

The novella ranks among K.J. Parker’s more magical offerings. The Goddess2 is determined not to forgive Lord Archias for killing her favourite musician, no matter how hard he prays to her, but she might make an exception if he agrees to undertake a perilous journey to the underworld to retrieve said musician’s soul. She’ll help him out, even, by gracing him with her divine presence along the way!

When it doesn’t interfere with her other whims, that is. And when she isn’t off being censured by her father, the King of the Gods. And when it doesn’t put her in what passes for danger to a deity for whom all things are possible.

How lucky for Lord Archias.

If you and I have ever discussed K.J. Parker before, you know his novelettes and novellas are my sweet spot. All the things I most love about his fiction--the cynicism, the dark humour, and his talent for twisting points of view so you can never quite trust the words on the page--show to best effect at this length. Everything’s tight and contained and easy to devour in a single sitting. Parker’s books rely on the (often ironic) juxtaposition of detail, and there’s precious little chance the reader will miss something important over the course of fifty to a hundred and twenty grippy pages.

Where DOWNFALL OF THE GODS is concerned, a large part of the appeal comes from the almost-familiarity of the thing. The Goddess and her family aren’t the Greek gods, but they’re clearly based on them. This isn’t the same continent readers know from Parker’s other stories, but it’s close enough to it (geographically speaking) that the Goddess has heard about those people and their strange, strange ways. It makes for an exercise in spot-the-difference-and-divine-its-purpose; something I always enjoy.

The Goddess herself is so plain-spoken that one knows from the first not to trust her; another device to keep the reader attentive. She’ll tell you absolutely anything, but that doesn’t mean she’s telling you everything, or that she’s unbiased in her views. As she reminds the reader whenever she enters a godly space, this is how she perceives things. It’s not the be-all and end-all. All things are possible for the gods; even, perhaps, such a dramatic shift in perception that the world flips itself inside out, metaphorically speaking.

There’s this bit I really, really wish I could quote you, but alas I can’t because a) I read an ARC, and one isn’t supposed to quote from those, and b) I’m pretty sure this delightful, almost throwaway comment is the crux of the whole story, which makes it rather spoilerish.

Given we’re barred from that sort of commentary, suffice it to say the Goddess’s narration is infused with delightful, ironic self-awareness presented with an edge so sharp it's nearly invisible. I love it.

In around this narrative trickery (if trickery is quite the right word here), there’s plenty of space for the reader to consider divinity as a larger concept, mythology as a driving force throughout human history, and the relationships regular people establish with their deities. Lots of meaty, highly personal, potentially offensive stuff, depending on one’s own religious views.

If you’re an established K.J. Parker fan with a keen love of collectors’ editions, you’re gonna want to get your hands on this. If you can live without the limited edition hardcover, keep an eye on Subterranean Press’s website for the eventual digital release.

  1. My own library buys several Subterranean releases each year, but they tend to privilege short story collections over single novellas. I'd assume this is because of the price point, but they always seem to get the fancy limited editions even when there's a trade edition available, so one wonders.

  2. She’s never named, allowing the reader to draw their own assumptions as to who she might equate to in our reality.


  1. I really need to read K.J. Parker. I have books! I just need to get to them...

    1. I recommend you start with DEVICES AND DESIRES or one of his standalones.

    2. I've had that one sitting on my shelf for ages. I need to get to it as well...

    3. I think you're gonna enjoy it. It's intense and wallowsome.

  2. Heyyy! We're blogging twins! We both read a KJ Parker novella this week! My library usually gets these novellas (at least, they have gotten all the KJ Parker ones so far), so I should be able to check this one out soon.

  3. I feel like everyone is reading KJ Parker recently, but it's possible that it's only you and Jenny and that, to me, is mostly everybody :-)