Book review: The Devil You Know, by K J Parker

20 03 2018

K J Parker is the alternate pen name of the prolific, possibly-pseudonymous British novelist Tom Holt. While Holt’s output (under that name) is largely humorous, Parker’s is rooted in fantasy (and has twice won the World Fantasy Award, on both occasions in the novella category). I’ve previously reviewed Parker’s The Last Witness here.


As befits its title, The Devil You Know centres on the idea of a contract with the devil. From the start, it evoked echoes of John Wyndham’s short story ‘A Long Spoon’, which has a vaguely similar premise, and which formed my introduction, many years ago, to this flavour of story.

Saloninus is the great philosopher-scoundrel of his age; quite possibly of any age. But he’s getting uncomfortably close to death’s door, and feels his life’s work to be sorely incomplete. So, having proven with impeccably logical arguments that all of this ‘afterlife’ and ‘religion’ nonsense is an utter fiction, he decides that perhaps his only hope lies in an appeal to a higher power; or, as the case may be, to a lower power. In short, he’s ready to sign over his soul to the devil, in exchange for twenty additional years in prime health.

The demon who’s assigned to broker the contract is good at his job: one of the best of the demonic workers at humanity’s coalface. Initially, this transaction doesn’t appear to be any more complicated—arguably, in fact, less demanding—than any of the thousands of earlier demonic contracts with which he’s been involved. And, indeed, he almost admires Saloninus, who seems remarkably sanguine (for a human). But he quickly learns that the aging philosopher is both more astute and more cynical than he has appeared, at which point the demon (who’s never named, as such, during the course of the novella) begins to suspect that, in completing his negotiation of the contract with Saloninus, he has fallen into some kind of trap of the human’s devising.

If it’s a trap, though, it’s slow to spring. The demon—who for the twenty contracted years is obliged to act as a sort of infernal gentleman’s gentleman, attending to Saloninus’s every whim, and who can additionally step out of time when required—has plenty of time to attempt to outsmart and outmanoeuvre the wily philosopher. And anyway, it can’t be a trap, because the contract’s watertight. Isn’t it?

This is a rather cerebral, cynical, slowly-unfolding novella, in which we see things (in first-person perspective) alternately from the viewpoint of Saloninus and from his demonic charge. There are, as is appropriate for the subject matter, plenty of barbed observations and snippets of wordplay, and the interplay between the two protagonists, as they try to out-Machiavelli each other, is fascinating. It’s not, though, particularly engaging, perhaps because neither of the main characters is exactly appealing. But if problem-solving fiction is something you’re drawn to, I can recommend it.




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