Book Talk: 'My Beautiful Life' by K. J. Parker - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'My Beautiful Life' by K. J. Parker

Life takes extraordinary turns for Alexander Wallace.
They say that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Others say that power doesn’t corrupt, but reveals corruption that was already there. In any case, power is what defines who we are and how we interact in the world.

There is something to be said about works of fiction that interrogate what power means to those who have it. At their best, they show us what happens behind the cameras and the chroniclers, and why things happen the way they do. I’ve found that, in many cases, the fantasy genre does this particularly well, taking the broad strokes of history and reworking it in such a manner that writers don’t have to be ever at the mercies of historical nitpickers; Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series strikes me as a story that does that; another is what we’ll be discussing here.

That book is K. J. Parker’s novella My Beautiful Life, released in 2019. This is a fantasy story without much magic, but filled with plenty of political intrigue. It is a world that struck me as based very much on the Byzantine Empire, with a vaguely Greek aesthetic in its names (including certain names for religious functions) and a powerful yet decaying empire being besieged by barbarians.

The first-person narrator goes throughout the rather short book (I finished it in an evening) completely unnamed. It is framed as his memoirs dictated to a scribe in old age, looking back with melancholy at the life he has lived. It is a life that is against probability, but filled with great adventure and great humor. Parker’s writing ability really shines here as his narrator relates to you the story of his ascension to very high office.

That ascension does not come without a cost; likewise, the narrator is not the only schemer in his family. Over the course of the story, you begin to see the compromises that are made in the name of achieving power, usually without even the pretense of cloaking it in ideology or religion. Once these characters are thrown into the battleground that is courtly politics, they need power to secure themselves. In order to secure themselves, they must do all sorts of horrible things. Parker knows how to make things satisfyingly ambiguous; fair debate could be had as to whether these characters were corrupt from the beginning or were corrupted by the system.

The narrator is conflicted; he grows to have real attachments with other people. But politics is war by other means, and those means are cunning and back-handed. I’ve heard it said that no empathetic person really enjoys politics; this book shows the truth of that very well. My Beautiful Life was a pleasant surprise, having found it by chance in a local library. It is slim and ruthlessly efficient in exploring what it wants to explore, and is deliciously written too. I highly recommend it.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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