Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Prosper's Demon by K.J. Parker

Every reader has weak spots: kinds of books that reader is always a sucker for. If you read in public, the way I do, it's important to make that clear: it's entirely possible that you love something vastly more than other people just because it's so exactly the thing you love.

Prosper's Demon is a novella published as a book: other people have said for several generations that's a perfect length for great SFF; I agree with them. It's a dark fantasy, told in an engaging first-person voice by a character who is not a good man at all, is tolerably honest about what kind of man he actually is, is sneaky and smart and twisty in telling his story but not generally over the actual line of being unreliable. And he does some very bad things over the course of this story, for what he firmly believes are good reasons -- or perhaps because that's all he can do, being who he is in the world and place he is.

And it pushes a good half-dozen of my buttons along the way: it is exactly the kind of book I love. (I've read some K.J. Parker in the past: I was a big fan of his early Scavenger Trilogy, and bought them for the SFBC, but have not kept up with his novels since. I get the sense that I would enjoy his longer books nearly as much as I liked this one, and I have several on the shelves to read "someday," like so much else.)

This may not be your kind of thing: it is dark, and it is short, and it is fantasy, and it is entirely in the mind of a narrator who works exclusively as a exorcist in a semi-Renaissance secondary world. So keep that in mind as I praise it.

We don't know his name: he is our narrator, the lens through which we get the story. Call him the exorcist; it's what he does. It's what he's had to do, since he was very young. There are demons -- 72,936 of them, according to the Church, which would know -- and they are indestructible and eternal. They can possess humans, and a few humans have the power to speak to them and compel them to come out.

Demons can do a lot of damage on the way out, though, especially if they've had time to get established. But, on the other side, demons have some sort of grand, incredibly long-term plan to destroy humanity, so even if leaving a demon in place might be better for the individual human, it could have bad consequences for humanity.

Exorcists each have a territory, and a group of demons that they tend to see over and over again: to find, and then cajole or convince or order out of their current host. They are always successful, in that the demon is cast out. If you count success as the life or health of the host, the metric would be different.

And exorcists, or at least the one we follow, are exorcists perhaps because their minds are particularly easy for demons to enter. Oh, they can kick the demons back out quickly, once they realize what has happened, without any mental consequences themselves. But if a demon takes over while the exorcist is asleep, that demon could do an awful lot of horrible things before the exorcist comes to the next morning.

And they do.

This exorcist has tangled with a demon he calls Him -- demons don't have names, or genders, but are individuals -- since the very beginnings of his career. (No, earlier than that. The earliest possible beginning of a career casting out demons.) You might say they are each other's nemeses, or archenemies. The exorcist goes out of his way to torment Him when they meet again; He goes out of his way to set up complicated plots that could cause the exorcist's death.

This time, it's a doozy. The greatest mind of the age, Prosper of Schanz, has been entrusted with raising the newborn son of the Grand Duke Sigiswald of Essen into a perfect philosopher-king: given immense latitude in all things.

And there's more than one demon mixed up in the situation. Him, of course. And another demon, one the exorcist has never met before: polite and refined and smart and interesting and perhaps even seductive in an intellectual sense. That demon the exorcist comes to call Her. (He's not a good man in oh so many ways, some of them more self-damaging than others.)

It's clear this is part of that long-term demon plan to destroy humanity. Maybe not quickly, maybe not even speeding things up all that much. But definitely something sneaky aimed at causing mass death and pain some time in the future.

So the exorcist needs to talk to Prosper of Schanz, his world's foremost rationalist, about demons. And the exorcist needs to find a way to thwart the plots of these demons: that's his job.

No matter what it costs.

As I said, this book is dark. I found it a fun, zippy kind of darkness: Parker doesn't dwell on the pain and death that demons and exorcists bring; he just makes it clear those things happen. And the prose is bright and wonderful as well; I've marked several quotes in this short book to post on this blog later.

So I need to read more books by this Parker person, I think. I knew that already: but I have a new example to make it clearer. And if this sounds like your kind of thing as well, I can tell you it's really, really good of its kind.

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