I’ve done some truly appalling things in my life. I’m bitterly ashamed of them now. Saying I did them all for the best – and saying, those things weren’t my idea, other people made me do them, is just as bad; admitting that I’m a spineless coward as well as morally bankrupt. I’m a mess, and no good nohow.
I can say all that and get away with it; you can’t. Don’t even think about it. If you were to repeat what I’ve just told you word for word, let alone paraphrase it or add a few rhetorical flourishes of your own, they’d have you up for high treason and stretch your neck.
My Beautiful Life plays with structure and characters in a way that seems to be slightly divorced from its intended audience. When taken as a writing study, it’s actually quite interesting – how might an author bring about a story wherein the end is revealed at the beginning? Unfortunately, writing studies typically aren’t being published en masse. They’re just studies, meant to hone writing skills. Although this novella nails the tone and characters it seeks to portray, it was very difficult to connect with the story as a reader.
The writing has a rambling, conversational style, which initially appealed to me greatly. As the book continued, however, it began to wear out its welcome. This was compounded by how quickly Parker moved from event to event, as it created a sense of distance between the narrator and the reader. Although I do feel that this was wholly intentional and quite well executed from a narrative perspective, it’s not an effect that appealed to me personally as a reader.
The nameless main character is introduced as a monarch dictating his life story to his scribe. Immediately, he’s characterized as arrogant, brutal, and a bit vain. He frequently breaks the fourth wall with side commentary to the scribe, who dutifully records it all. He tells the reader that he’s an awful human being, that he’s done horrible things to secure his position – which is undeniably true. His roots, however, are quite humble. He tells us the story of growing up with his two brothers, Nico and Edax, along with his mother. His mother was a sex worker, and the brothers’ precise parentage is unclear.
As their mother ages, prostitution becomes a much less viable method of putting food on the table. Thus, it’s decided that one of the boys must be sold as a slave. Their mother fobs off the responsibility of deciding just who is sold onto the boys themselves; Nico, being the oldest, steps up to the place and agrees to be the one sold at market to protect his two younger brothers. If this wasn’t sufficiently depressing, however, Nico had heard that eunuchs sell for higher prices at market. Therefore, he heads off away from home… and slices off his penis, due to a rather unfortunate misunderstanding as to which part of the anatomy is meant to be snipped in order to accomplish a castration. This more or less works out for him, ironically; two slavers take pity on his and purchase him to work in the castle.
Years later, I asked a famous doctor and he said that Nico should’ve died, it was a miracle he survived – and then he paused because miracle usually means the Invincible Sun intervening to some good purpose, and this was Nico we were talking about. It was extraordinary, the doctor went on, that Nico had survived at all, after losing a ridiculous amount of blood, not to mention the risk of infection, and lockjaw from the rusty knife. And then walking twelve miles up the mountain to kalenda, it was – and then words failed him. Monstrous, I suggested. And he thought about it for a moment, and nodded. Monstrous, he said, quite.
For much of the book, Nico is the brains of the operation. Our nameless narrator largely comes off as something of an idiot; he tends to just go along with the decisions of others. Nico’s success is what catapults the narrator into power as well. It’s a little frustrating to watch – it’s much less interesting to follow someone who is merely reactive to those around him vs someone who is an active agent in his future, particularly in a book like there wherein the central conceit lies in seeing how the main character rises from rags to riches.
When I told Nico I’d do it, he laughed. Of course you will, he told me, you’re a good boy, and it’s the only way we can be absolutely safe. I’m not doing it for you, I told him. Don’t talk stupid, he said, of course you are. He didn’t believe me. I don’t know why.
The setting is fairly standard low fantasy, with a religion based around the Invincible Sun as a deity. Magic is minimal and possibly nonexistent, depending on how many coincidences you’re willing to swallow. Largely, the world serves as a backdrop to the characters and narration, which are the highlights of the novella. In order to avoid overwhelming the reader or veering off course, it was necessary that at least part of the book would end up being slightly sidelined. However, there was one aspect of the castle which caught my fancy: The Stables.
The Stables are a wing of the castle with a horrifically convoluted layout. I loved the bits describing how both Nico and the main character are forced to navigate them, counting steps and attempting to memorize the twists and turns of the passageways. Nico, naturally, manages a full map of the place and uses it to has advantage as he manipulates all those around him. The narrator, of course, doesn’t manage anything nearly so elegant.
One day, when I got off work, some clerk came up to me and told me my borther wanted to see me in his office. So off we went, up a mountain of stairs and down again, along corridors, down tunnels, up towers, until I had absolutely no idea where I was, though my feet told me I must have walked at least two miles. And then he suddenly stopped, in front of a plain dark oak door looking exactly the same as the thousand-odd plain dark oak doors we’d walked past; no name or number on it, goes without saying. In there, the clerk told me.
The narrator’s downfall was, of course, to be expected – this is KJ Parker, and Parker generally does make sure that his characters get what they deserve in the end. I did find it somewhat ironic that it’s only when the main character decides that he’s had enough of going with the flow and attempts to become an active player on the board that his debt finally comes due. It was a suitable ending to the novella, and felt satisfying as a reader even if the book as a whole wasn’t quite my cup of tea.
Thank you to Subterranean Press for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!