Thursday, February 11, 2016

Downfall of the Gods - K.J. Parker

Downfall of the Gods is a new novella by K.J. Parker. I’ve been getting through quite a few of these lately, mostly in the form of his serialised novel, Two of Swords. Downfall, though, is a bit different. It largely takes the form of a dialogue between a goddess, a member of a squabbling and largely petty pantheon, and one of her worshippers. Over the course of the text, we’re treated to examinations of faith, belief, the nature of humanity, and, perhaps more worryingly, the nature of the divine.

Parker  gives us a fairly large patch of the world to play in for this one. Our protagonists are on a journey, you see. Nominally one of redemption, though it may have more nefarious or otherwise inscrutable motives.  Along the way, they work their way across an ocean, deserts, the occasional mountain range, and a variety of villages and towns. These all serve as the backdrop for the ongoing interaction between the travellers, but they’re still present in the narrative, and in many cases, still vividly real. To be fair, there’s less focus on the geography here, but Parker’s trademark focus on detail stands him in good stead., There’s discussion of the customs of various regions, and those are fed into larger issues; one town  has rather stringent laws on the passing of counterfeit coin, and this runs into a hilarious exchange on the validity of the rule of law, made whilst the divinity and her supplicant attempt to escape from justice. There’s a lot of inferred depth in this world, which is drawn with sparse, but precise brush strokes, leaving the reader with a framework that they can fill in with their imagination. It’s a world of kings, and gods, of violence, compassion, and divine cruelty. All of these are part of Parker’s world, and he makes it feel convincingly real.

The characters – well, the central focus here is, as above, on a goddess and one of her worshippers; the latter of whom is on a journey to prevent his eternal damnation, after accidentally irritating the former. In the dialogue between the two, we see the growth (and occasional decline) of their characters. Parker’s dialogue has always been top notch, and there’s no change here. The interaction between man and goddess  goes about as well as you’d expect. To begin with, the divinity regards her worshipper on approximately the same level as a family pet that has accidentally soiled itself and the carpet, and the worshipper moves between dismissive condemnation for his potential damnation, and a sort of awe. Over the course of the text, however, they converge a little more; coming to understand each other slightly, if not actually enjoy each other’s company. There’s a solid amount of growth in particular for the non-divine side of the equation, as he moves through various stages of understanding about his faith, and the role of the divine in the world, as the journey goes on. Both characters absolutely sparkle – the dialogue has the clear rhythm of river rapids, and about as many sharp edges as the rocks underneath. The back and forth between the two is touching, intellectually challenging, and occasionally downright hilarious. By the end I’d say that the two are…well, not fully rounded, but perceivably real individuals.

The plot…well, as alluded to above, it’s a journey to the land of the dead, for reasons. The meat of the text is in the relationships and the dialogue above, and those have some serious oomph behind them. It’s a case of the journey being as important as the destination -  though in this case, the destination has a few surprises in it too. Not to cause any spoilers, but this journey of man and god promises to have more than a few consequences.

Is it worth reading? Well, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of K.J. Parker’s work. But this is still one of the better novellas in his selection.  It approaches grand themes through lower level interactions, and does so with considerable elan. It’s a fascinating text, which can make you laugh whilst throwing open questions about the role of faith in the world. So yes, it’s absolutely worth your time.

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