Boy, do I have a tasty box of treats for you today. Under My Skin, by K.J. Parker, is a collection of novellas and novelettes all taking place in the same collective universe and focusing on the subject of people who are not what they seem. Parker is a master of short stories and even wrote one of the site’s favorites, Prosper’s Demon, which is included in this collection if you haven’t read it. This ever-delivering collection is 700 pages of hard-hitting short fiction that gives you the goods on every single page. And best yet, there isn’t a single bad story in here.
Under My Skin sells a very special brand of magical snake oil that I have come to think of as Parker’s specialty. These stories are populated by con men who believe their own cons, good kings of dubious intent, magicians who don’t do magic, and messiahs who don’t offer redemption. In each of these stories, nothing is what it seems and everything will surprise you. Parker’s unruly and unreliable narrators, who sometimes fool themselves even more than they fool us, stride along muddy paths through lonely hills or across marble floors in grand palaces, always finding trapdoors opening beneath them.
On top of each of these stories being funny, witty, and surprising – their interconnectedness makes the collection feel like a quilt that slowly weaves into a larger story. As you cavort with each charlatan you begin to see a beautiful and grotesque picture of the world that forges these false men and why they are so common. Everything comes together under the umbrella theme of falsehoods and the many different ways lies can be used and interpreted. Some are your traditional con men, but others don’t even realize that they aren’t who they say they are. Some are simply unreliable narrators and others tell the truth completely for all that it helps anyone. But what is the truth when there are so many ways to interpret it and bend it to your beckoning? It is an incredible piece of fiction on every ground.
I could spend pages talking about each and every short in the collection. As mentioned, we already wrote a full review of Prosper’s Demon. Each novella has a clear guiding star, a point that the story is always headed toward. There is a brilliant efficiency to Parker’s tales that feel like a master engineer fitting together cogs to build a complicated machine. Parker also plays a lot with narrative methodology which is some of my favorite things to see in novels and shorts. One story is told entirely through letters back and forth between people. Another is told via historical analysis of texts around the figure at the time. Each method feels perfectly matched to the story’s subject matter and delivers its punch with precision.
The best part is the characters, each more memorable than the last. They each live such interesting, and often terrible, lives that it forgets them into individuals with truly unique worldviews. Reading Under My Skin felt like trying on the lives of people I could never imagine and opening my mind to entirely new ways to think about the world. Parker’s ability to play in the margins of morality is fascinating. He is a master of crafting the discussion to manipulate your affections for his cast like putty, making you feel whatever he thinks will make the story stick. Love, hate, wonder, terror, lust, envy, horror, disbelief, anger, there isn’t an emotion I can think of that Parker didn’t cycle me through for his devious ends.
When I usually review collections of short stories I pick my favorites and use them as examples of what the collection has to offer. Yet, when I went to pick the best of this incredible lot I found myself unable to do so, they are all amazing. Under My Skin is one of the first anthologies where I loved every single story inside it, and I ecstatically recommend you check it out for yourself.
Rating: Under My Skin – 10/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.