REVIEW SUMMARY::Excellent world building and characterization for a story of it’s novella-sized length.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Saloninus, the greatest philosopher in the world, wants to sell his soul. The Devil can’t resist, but is wary of what his plan really is.
PROS:: Strong characterization; excellent novella-length introduction to Parker’s world; sometimes funny as hell; excellent variation on the Faust story.
CONS:: The world could use some decent cartography; Parker does handles male characters better than the female ones.
BOTTOM LINE: The best entry point so far for Parker’s work and an excellent piece of fiction besides.
Although the origins of the idea of “Deals with the Devil” go back to the 6th century A.D., the classic and archetypal idea of the scholar who sells his soul to the Devil in order to gain greater knowledge still, lies in the German story of Faust. The story of Faust — his hubris and his tragedy — is now an archetype that’s been seen in movies like Devil’s Advocate and comic book storylines like Spider-Man’s “One More Day“. The Devil You Know is K.J. Parker’s exploration of the Faust myth in a novella length format.
Most of Parker’s fiction feels like it’s set in the same alternate world, or a series of them given the reuse of place names for countries and cities. It’s a world that feels like Renaissance Europe in some ways, with a back history that makes haunting resonances with our own world. Parker’s novels, although seeming to take place in the same or similar worlds as most of the shorter work, are very much more like alternate-world-historical fantasy. However, like most of Parker’s shorter fiction, there is a larger role for magic in The Devil You Know. The amount of magic or supernatural elements seems to be in reverse proportion to the length of the work. As such, the Devil really exists, really has power, and really is going to offer the philosopher, con artist and inventor Saloninus much for his soul: additional years of youthful health, temporal power on a whim, and the other usual accoutrements one gets with a soul-selling contract are all on tap as per the contract. The trick is, Saloninus is widely known to be crafty and untrustworthy. The Devil is certain that the street-smart and book-smart Saloninus has a plan to get out of the contract. Is the Devil right? Who is smarter?
The novella hopscotches adroitly between the viewpoints of Salonius and the Devil who is administrating his contract. Parker does an excellent job in juggling this, since it’s clear to the reader (and to the Devil himself) that Saloninus has a plan up his sleeve to weasel out of his contract. We’re not privy to its full details until its revelation, but it is enormously fun to spend time in the Devil’s head trying to work out just what Saloninus really is up to. And yes, like the Cylons, Salonius does have a plan, but I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it. In many ways, given the timeframe of the book, The Devil You Know works as a title with multiple meanings–over time, the Devil and Saloninus do get to know each other rather well. The Devil thinks he understood his client and his oeuvre before meeting him, but learns his error throughout the novella. The deepening of this relationship, and the characterization of Devil and client alike is a highlight of the novella.
Based on this, and some of his other short fiction, novella-length stories seem to be a particular strength for Parker. Ideas don’t wear out their welcome. There isn’t the slog that I sometimes feel in parts of some of the author’s longer works. It remains fresh, funny, sharp, pointed, and poignant throughout. The constant tension that underlines the novella — How is Salonius going to get out of his contract and beat the devil? — works perfectly at this length and is an effective way to draw the reader through the work. The Devil You Know is an excellent introduction to Parker’s work at a reasonable cost in time and money. After reading it, you will know for certain if you want to dive into his ever-expanding output. I don’t have to sell my soul to bet that I think you likely will.