I have an idea you aren’t going to like me very much. That may prove to be the only thing we’ll have in common, so let’s make the most of it.
Prosper’s Demon is an absolutely stellar example of KJ Parker’s signature wit. As always, Parker’s protagonist is more than a bit of an asshole, but you have to love the wry, humorous prose he’s couched in. This would be a great entry point for someone new to Parker’s short fiction, given how thoroughly it epitomizes the tone and characters he’s known for. Although this novella shares a universe with My Beautiful Life, they are both stand-alone and independent of one another.
Parker has a penchant for nameless narrators, and Prosper’s Demon continues that trend. It’s an interesting stylistic choice, especially since it’s hardly noticeable up until you begin writing about the book in question. You start to write a sentence saying that <narrator> did such and such, and then you backtrack – wait, what’s his name? DID he have a name? Oh, huh, he didn’t have a name. Parker manages to draw you into the head of his characters so thoroughly that you never stop to consider the fact that you don’t even have a word to call them. It’s the purest of first person stream-of-consciousness style narrations, eliminating all the chaff. The reader is meant to BECOME the main character, to insert themselves into the novella, and to experience what it would be like to be such a complete and utter asshole themselves. It’s fascinating.
The novella opens on, well, a murder scene. And I do mean opens on it – the very first sentence describes the corpse lying on the bed. It’s established quite quickly that our anonymous narrator is not the best person out there, given that he’s the murderer. Sure, a demon made him do it – but he also chose to put himself in a position that gave the demon and opening to sneak into him while he was asleep. But, regardless, it’s up to the reader whether or not the good he does balances out the bad, so off goes the body down a nice deep crevasse. Thus does Parker set the stage for this little demon hunting tale.
I WOKE TO FIND her lying next to me, quite dead, with her throat torn out. The pillow was shiny and sodden with blood, like low-lying pasture after a week of heavy rain. The taste in my mouth was familiar, revolting, and unmistakable. I spat into my cupped hand; bright red. Oh, for crying out loud, I thought. Here we go again.
Really, though, our dear narrator is less of a hunter and more of a shepherd. The demons can’t die, but they can be shuffled along and weakened. He was born with the ability to see and interact with demons, which is quite rare in this world. He first encountered a demon all the way back when he was in his mother’s womb, when a demon attempted to hide in her and recover after having suffered a grievous injury. This did not go very well for the demon, and likely contributed quite a bit to the somewhat skewed moral compass our narrator now possesses.
The narrator’s semi-lucrative demon-shepherding trade is sanctioned by the Church, though the demons are working on discrediting the whole institution altogether with mixed success. Sometimes he’s welcomed into villages, and other times he’s given the cold shoulder. On the whole, people are usually glad to see him when they need him but would very much prefer he not wear out his welcome after the demons have been exorcised. Largely, this is due to the fact that exorcisms are messy at best. It is not a clean process to extract a demon. They latch on to their host’s minds, and pulling them out tends to do quite a bit of damage. On the flip side, however, the demons aren’t a huge fan of the exorcism process either – it’s painful in a way that we mere mortals could never understand. Thus, sometimes the best option is to bargain with them and convince them that leaving on their own is in their best interests.
Give me five minutes, It said. At which point, you have to make a decision. You consider the amount of damage It’s already done—in this case, a broken leg, because I’d heard it break, and almost certainly a rib or two, high chance of internal bleeding, the little bastards never can resist playing—and then you weigh the harm It’ll do if you leave It in there a moment longer against the havoc It could cause if you have to yank It out. Factor against all that the pain and trauma It’ll feel being extracted, of which It’s so very, very scared; and then you ask yourself, is It really so tired and hungry that It’ll risk being manhandled, or is It simply trying it on, the way They all do, 999 times in 1,000?
This way of life is all well and good for dear Narrator, right up until he finds a demon inhabiting the premier scholar of their kingdom: the good Master Prosper. It’s quite a subtle little thing, and rather more aesthetically pleasing compared to the ones he’s used to (by which I mean that it looks like a very attractive young woman rather than the nasty crabby-gooey things he typically sees). He’s set to be the mentor for the Duchess’ as yet unborn child. Naturally, the unborn child also has a demon inside of it. All around, this is not a great situation for anyone – and so, he bargains.
Fine, It said as It saw me scowling in at It through some poor devil’s eyes. I give up. I’ll go quietly. No, you won’t, I said. I’ve got a job for you. You what? You’re going to do something for me, I said. Or I’ll hurt you so badly you’ll remember the pain every day for the rest of your everlasting life. Two pale eyes gazed at me. If I’d been capable of pity, I’d have felt it. You’re serious, aren’t you? About the job, yes. And the pain. Completely stunned. Tens of thousands of years of existence, you think you’ve heard it all, but apparently not. You want me to help you? I nodded. Collaboration, I told It. It’s the next big thing.
In exchange for helping Prosper’s titular demon out with Prosper’s art project, the demon agrees to do a bit less harm in the short term. Sure, our narrator will be assisting with their long game plan, but at least the people in his own generation will feel a bit less pain for it. Tit for tat, after all. As mentioned above: Collaboration is the next big thing. And so, they embark on a quest of artistic vision: to create the large bronze statue in the world. It will be magnificent, glorious, a monument to mankind. It might even be worth the cost. There’s only one way to find out.
It’s damned impressive how much fun Parker makes reading about asshole main characters. You love to hate them. They murder, they make horrible decisions, they lie and cheat and steal. But the prose is light, wry, and witty. His plotting makes it clear contextually that the main character is horrible, and so it never feels apologetic. If anything, it wallows in it, joyfully. Parker makes no attempt whatsoever to truly justify the actions of his characters, and it makes for an entertaining and hilarious read about awful human beings. It almost reminds me of a Quentin Tarantino film, if Tarantino wasn’t a foot fetishist and was actually witty.
Anyway, the real takeaway here: I thoroughly enjoyed this novella, and you should read it too if you like witty assholes who shepherd around demons.
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5 thoughts on “Prosper’s Demon by K. J. Parker”
I’ve only read one of Parker’s other books and kinda felt meh about it. Yours is the second good review for Prosper’s Demon I’ve seen and I loved your take. I’m also trying to add more novellas to my reading this year so now I’m putting this on my want list.
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Which other book did you try? I read My Beautiful Life just a little while ago, and though I liked it, I liked Prosper’s Demon significantly more. Prosper’s Demon is a good one to figure out whether or not Parker’s novellas are up your alley.
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It was Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City.
That said, his full novels are quite a bit different from his short fiction. So those would be worth trying even if the novellas aren’t for you!