Saturday, August 17, 2013

Let Maps to Others, by K. J. Parker

K. J. Parker wrote the wonderful A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong, which was nominated for last year's World Fantasy Award, and returns this year with Let Maps to Others.  It's as good, in a somewhat different way. 

Our protagonist is the foremost scholar on a most confusing phenomenon of a country.  Essequivo was visited once, three hundred years ago, by a merchant who brought back a massively valuable cargo.  There is incontrovertible evidence that he really went somewhere (brought back inventions as well as spices etc.) but he kept the reference to himself and then died suddenly.  Ever since, scholars have been turning over every archive and scrap of evidence trying to figure it out.

Parker goes on to tell a remarkably well-rounded tale, giving a very brief, entertaining but complete description of the impact this fact had on the Republic (the protagonist's country) and the protagonist himself.  The economy was greatly stimulated just by the preparations made for the future visits.  Fortunes were made, then lost as the hoped-for return did not happen.  Our protagonist (it's first person all the way, and his name is not mentioned) was the son of one of these investors.  The story scales all the way from economics down to the personal rivalry of the protagonist and another leading Essequivo scholar.  We have wonderful detail on Renaissance sailing ships, manuscript creation and preservation, and human relations.  All this without a romance crutch.  Great stuff.

Many stories of this sort would be set on an alternate Earth, with recognizable geography.  Parker chooses to forgo this and set it in an entirely fictional world.  This is obviously deliberate--Parker demonstrates very good research and would have been perfectly capable of adapting Earth.  To me it's just an aesthetic choice, though Parker might have something else to say.

There's even this fun undercurrent of the Republic as a reasonably well-off nation, but a somewhat feckless one.  They build ships that appear to be quite capable but are in fact no match at all for the rival Empire ships, or even weather.

All in all a very deftly woven story, highly worthy of reading for both enjoyment and appreciation of craft.  The more I think about it the more I like it.  4 stars for me.

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