Whoa-oh this story is dark. Nasty, brutish and short. Very Hobbesian in more ways that one. PROSPER’S DEMON is a little fantasy horror novella about a demon exorcist in what feels like a low fantasy analogue of the Holy Roman Empire around the 17th century and follows him as he works his way into the court of Prosper of Schanz, a polymath and recognised genius of the age. As a man of reason and science, Prosper believes it possible to raise the new born royal child as the world’s first philosopher king under his tutelage, thus ushering the world into a new age of greatness. Except our narrator suspects Prosper is possessed, and our narrator, as you will discover, has very few scruples…
I’m always impressed when novella writers manage to immerse you in a setting by the sheer force of making every word count, and K. J. Parker is very good at that. He throws you head on into this dark world of demons and monarchies and conflict between superstition and enlightenment, giving you tantalising nuggets of detail that are like pulleys with Parker cranking the levers to make every word he writes do the lifting of entire pages. Little tricks like dropping in titles of scientific texts, names of famous philosophers and small one liners about regional history that provide glimpses into the richness of the world and make it feel vibrant, on the move, alive. In one scene the unnamed narrator meets with Prosper in a cloister and tells us that ‘before the first Duke overthrew the Republic, the palace had been a monastery’ and I’m just sat there screaming “What Duke? What Republic? He overthrew it? What happened???”. But of course that’s not the story Parker is telling here, so we don’t get to hear any more about it, but that one tiny little line paints the entire scene with a context and a history that adds a whole other dimension to the narrative.
The characters are also pretty darn good for such a short story too. Particularly the narrator, who we find out is part of a monastic order dedicated to exorcising the demons who frequently take up residence in human bodies to feed off their life force. The demons, unfortunately, cannot be killed, but do experience unbearable pain if they force an exorcist to pull them out; the catch is that doing so is very risky for the human host and often results in their death. I loved the fascinating games of chicken that develop out of this situation; the bluffs, the threats, the bargaining to see who would blink first was fraught with tension. A tension made all the more fraught by knowing that the narrator really has no qualms about killing the host if a demon is particularly intransigent – no negotiating with terrorists and all that. Despite being immortal, many of the demons are terrified of the narrator; there’s one particular scene where one demon is almost wild with panic at what the narrator might do to him. It screams at another demon for aid, calling the narrator evil and a lunatic. Quite something coming from a being of pure malevolence.
As a former student of political philosophy I appreciated the Hobbesian elements of this story quite a lot. Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher best known for his treatise Leviathan, written during the English Civil War, in which he argues for a social contract based on the rule of a strong, undivided government led by a single wise, enlightened monarch. This is essentially the being Prosper wants to mould the young prince into – the world’s first true philosopher king. Hobbes argued this was necessary because life in the ‘state of nature’ was a ‘war of all against all’, likely to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’, a pithy phrase that actually describes this book pretty well too. This phrase is actually referenced directly at one point when the narrator buys a young girl in order to further his schemes and when challenged defends himself by claiming if he hadn’t done so then ‘she’d have led a nasty, brutish, short life in Poor Town and probably be dead at thirty’. And although this is a secondary world fantasy, the analogous time period feels very much like the time Hobbes was writing. I dunno, maybe other people wouldn’t appreciate the themes of political philosophy as much, and you don’t need to know or care about it to enjoy the book, but it’s my background and I’m a nerd so I loved it.
I have one minor quibble with the book, which is at times the way the narrator spoke and the style of his language didn’t always feel in keeping with the time period. Now I know fantasy is fantasy and people can talk in whatever way is fitting with their own fantastical world, but because I got a very strong 17th century central Europe vibe, the language didn’t quite fit with the setting. But that’s just me and even I didn’t care that much.
All told, this is an engrossing, dark little tale that I’d recommend to almost anyone with a passing interest in dark fantasy. Great read.
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