KJ Parker (an alias of novelist Tom Holt, but I’ve never read any Tom Holt novels, only KJ Parker novels) is my second favorite author of all time, period. Period.

ACADEMIC EXERCISES is an anthology of his short stories and three of his essays, each one a jewel. Parker writes beautifully, with no false sense of self-importance; where other writers would dress something up in silver and spangles, Parker depends on the natural beauty of the unadorned and the sheer splendor of flawless craftsmanship — the difference between a reasonably-made floor of pine boards covered in gold leaf and a perfectly made wooden floor made of barely-varnished rosewood and ebony marquetry.

Parker writes pornography for perfectionists. If you’re not a perfectionist, you might misunderstand — not sex. But he’ll tell you in lush and loving detail about things like… engineering. Interchangeable parts. The process of making twelve absolutely faultless and identical pieces, all laid in a neat row on a length of white cloth.

This is a man who has either a ridiculous practical knowledge of six or seven different fields of study (history, economics, war tactics and strategy, blacksmithing, engineering, fencing…), or a comprehensive theoretical knowledge thereof and a real talent for sitting down and figuring out the sensible, practical parts mentally. Or both. I don’t know which option is more impressive.

So the stories themselves, flawless. The essays, though, are on another level completely. Just when you thought KJ Parker couldn’t get any better, he sits down with you, as if over a companionable pint of beer, and spends a few thousand words telling you the sensible, practical ups and downs of sieges, swords, and scale-mail, and he does it with this down-to-earth language and a wonderfully wry sense of humor about the whole thing.




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