RogerBW's Blog

The Devil You Know, K J Parker 23 September 2017

2016 fantasy novella. The greatest philosopher of all time is offering to sell his soul to the Devil. All he wants is twenty more years to complete his life’s work. But the demon assigned to the task is deeply suspicious. For one thing, it seems like an obviously bad deal for the human. For another, the philosopher asked for him by name.

There have been quite a lot of stories about people trying to make bargains with Hell, and then trying to get out of them. I think the first one I read was Larry Niven's Convergent Series. This does it at greater length than most, and because it's a Parker story, you know that there are going to be tricks within tricks. (I'd love to see Parker tackle a caper story. Even a fantasy one, if it were absolutely necessary.)

Like a caper story, you know going in that there's deception involved; the real question is how the philosopher is planning to come out on top. Is he really smart enough to out-think Hell?

A slight mis-step, to my mind, is that the viewpoint shifts between demon and philosopher (and at least in the electronic copy I read this wasn't well-signalled). I'd have preferred to leave the latter as a black box, having only the information that the demon has to work with, rather than the additional material from his own thoughts… which doesn't even spoil the mystery, it's just a style thing.

But this is a ferocious puzzle challenge between two high-level intellects who are also interesting people, written in such a way that mere normal humans have a fair chance at working out what's going on, and I recommend it highly.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 10:42pm on 16 October 2017

    I finally got around to reading this, having picked it up when you posted about it.

    And I was disappointed. Partly because I expected 'the cleverest man in the world' to come up with something cleverer than that. I wanted to know how he knew which devil to call on. Was that in there?

    I wanted the solution to discover something special about the background or to make the world a special sort of place. And at the end I had no clear idea how the clever guy worked out the thing that he used to win.

    And then I was surprised to discover that K J Parker is Tom Holt, a thing I had not previously known. It's obvious looking back on it: the tone of the two voices is very Holt-like.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:36am on 17 October 2017

    Sorry to have steered you wrong. I do think it would have worked better if the viewpoint had stayed in the demon's head.

    I've seen suggestions of the Parker-Holt identity, but nothing definitive or official - unless you count "", which I've never heard mentioned before or since.

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