Flash review: Burning Books for Pleasure and Profit by K. J. Parker

This fast-paced, amusing story is a pleasure to read. It combines an inventive world, a moral quandary that the author very efficiently and plausibly resolves, and characters that have a certain charm, be they the heroes or antagonists. The story won’t stay with the reader for long, but it will provide for half an hour of blissful entertainment.

The narrator is the best scribe in town. He prides himself at transcribing books and creating genuine works of art. One day, Ogyga, a short middle-aged woman comes to his workshop and asks him to create a gift for her sister. Initially, there’s only one problem: Ogyga’s sister is the local high priestess of the imperial religion, and Ogyga leveraged that power for her own benefit. She expects – and usually gets – perfect service without any payment. The narrator is forced to oblige, even though he can’t help himself but to provoke her as much as possible before it gets too dangerous.

When he starts translating the manuscript, however, he finds a much worse problem. The manuscript predates the official religion’s holy texts and contains the holy text of a competing religion that the empire had been at war with. It proves the precedence of the competing religion and completely discredits that of Ogyga’s sister. If he truthfully translates the text, he’ll be branded a heretic. So, he devises a plan to shift the blame to Ogyga and her sister, to get rid of them for once and for all, so that he can go back to his paid work.

This story, which barely qualifies as a novelette, features a very rich backstory for the narrator and the hints of a well-developed world, which I’ve found out Parker had developed in other stories. Still, he manages to keep the narrative very tight and self-contained enough that Burning Books can be read as stand-alone. I was actually amazed to find so much content in such a short work, without feeling overwhelmed.

Part of why this story feels so fresh despite the amount of content is the writing style. The narrator is irreverent, and other characters are quick to respond in kind. This reads like a John Scalzi story, but without the obnoxious near omniscience of the good guys and overwhelming stupidity of the bad ones. The narrator’s inner monologue follows the same pattern, and together with the dialogue they lighten the mood. As they should. The story is just a vignette in a quite tragic life of the protagonist, against the backdrop of an unending religious war between two faiths whose differences appear to be only superficial. Without the light mood, this story would have been a depressing nut to crack.

My only caveat about the story is that the vignette seems to be too small, inconsequential. This is quite surprising, as the protagonist already had been responsible for the most important book discovery of his generation, and this manuscript could be even more revolutionary. Still, the story sounds so tiny in the context of the worldbuilding that it fizzles out of the reader’s mind soon after finishing reading. Even so, reading this short novelette is fun. The worldbuilding is intriguing, one may learn a thing or two about transcribing books, the narrator is very likeable, while the antagonist is more amusing than threatening. I can wholeheartedly recommend this story as a quick distraction.

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