Back to top

One letter at a time

Cover of Purple and Black
A review of Purple and Black by K. J. Parker

Purple and Black is brilliantly done - a gem of a book (if I may be so cliche). Tightly woven. Thought-provoking. And all of that in a slender 113 pages. This is a fantasy novel, but don't let that prevent you reading it. It's only a fantasy in that it has a made up country. Everything else about it reads like historical fiction. The story is told through a series of letters between Nico, the reluctant emperor who only got the job because the rest of his male relatives killed each other off competing for the position, and Phormio, one of Nico's best friends from school who is now a reluctant general trying to quell a rebellion on the border. The title of the book refers to the ink used in the letters they write to each other. Purple is the official color used when communicating with the Emperor and black is the ink they use in their more informal (off the record) communications. While Nico struggles with the back-biting, competition and scheming at court, Phormio is struggling in a more direct way. A shadowy group is staging guerrilla attacks on border towns and it's Phormio's job to find and conquer this mysterious foe.

I'm not a huge fan of epistolary tales. I really only have one other that I can rave about and that's Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road (which isn't even a novel!). Even as I type that I'm struck by the realization that so much of what I love about Hanff's beautiful book is present in K. J. Parker's - even though one is a memoir and the other historical fantasy. Wit and dark humor and characters who jump off the page and the sort of stick-with-you kind of feeling only the best books evoke. That's all here. I finished this book in an evening, but thought about it for days afterward. Wonderfully done.

February 4, 2019