A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong • 2011 • Fantasy novella by K. J. Parker


The story draw me in from the first line and didn’t let go: Given the first scene in the prison when the genius musician Subtilius waited for his last hour without finishing his best piece of music, I catched Iron Maiden’s Hallowed be thy Name as an earworm (although the music is completely different).

As setting, Parker gives us an alternate baroquian world,  touching the idea of Mozart (impersonated by Subtilius) vs. Salieri (by the unnamed narrator) but develops it in a completely different form.

The unnamed narrator is a renowned assistant professor who knows all about symphonic structure but misses the genius „wings“ of his student Subtilius. The story explores the reason for this failure: it is all about letting go your sorrows, in this case mostly worrying about money:

like a duke scattering coins to the crowd from a balcony. Of course, the old duke used to have the coins heated in a brazier first. I still have little white scars on my fingertips.

This is one sample where Parker’s narration is executed masterfully: the little picture of burned fingers when he grabbed hot coins signing him forever. This worrying about money drives the next impulse in the wonderful exposition: Subtilius escapes the prison and asks his teacher for help with a symphony written in his style only enormously better, and ready for selling. Is it plagiarism when the creator asks for it, and how does the co-creation of teacher and student work? By accepting this positively perverted piece of work, he took mental wounds, just like the physical wounds when he grabbed the coins, and similarly, it will hurt forever. It was true, that he wasn’t able to produce such a work at that time, but nevertheless, it hurt. Subtilius exactly knows how to manipulate his teacher, just like every child knows how to find his parents‘ sensitive wounds. Manipulative, cruel, murderous, but at the same time ingenious. This exchange, and the question how artists set free their creative wings, drive the story.

There is one interesting moral discussion, which stayed with me quite long: is the live of an unimportant person less worth than a creative masterpiece made for millenia? The characters in the story find different answers.

Parker escapes the easy twists, finds better turnings in the course of the plot, and comes to a great ending which picks up the story’s title.

A clever tale with twists, an innovative background focusing on music, complex development of characters, a lovely narration with may little wow-effects. Just don’t expect any action scenes.

I highly recommend this masterpiece, also as an introduction to Parker’s work!

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean Online, Winter 2011. Read in The Best of Subterranean. It won the World Fantasy Award. Available online.

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