As promised, I am taking a short break from Song of Ice and Fire to look at the World Fantasy Award winners available online, through my favorite website, Free SF Online. Over the past two days I read A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong, by K. J. Parker, a nominee in the Novella category. And am really glad of it.
This story is one of the best I have read in a long time, as much as anything because it caught me by surprise. For the first couple of paragraphs, it reads like a cover of the movie Amadeus, and I was ready to dismiss it. But it quickly goes far beyond the resemblance. While our protagonist remains very much Saligheri, his nemesis (Subtilius) is a much more talented and crueler version of Mozart. His instrument of torture?
Music comes easily for Subtilius, while it's much more of a chore for P. Subtilius corrupts P. into helping him by offering him a piece of music written in P's own style--but so much better.
There are a lot of simple turns this story could have taken and been pretty good. But Parker resists them all and makes it even better. We get a very powerful exposition of what plagiarism, and creating one's own work, means. And as if that weren't enough we get fully developed characters to work through it--they are more than just illustrations of the point, though that would have been enough.
For another perspective on the ethics of borrowing someone else's talent, see Nothing to Declare, linked from this post on this blog. Together they make you think very seriously about how we create our own work from the work of others.
Four stars for this one. Go read.