Nathan’s review of High Times in the Low Parliament by Kelly Robson
I picked up this book after it was nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Novella. I knew nothing about it except that it seemed like a fun political satire with faeries, and so I dove right in.
And yeah, at least on one level it is a fun political satire. The overall premise of the novella is this: in the eighteenth century fairies are pretty much over all of the bad stuff that humans have done – including, but not limited to, destroying the environment, going to war, and even killing the fairies. They partially blame this on human governments not being able to accomplish anything. So the fairies set up the “Low Parliament”, a place for humans from all over to debate and pass resolutions. There is one catch – if the Low Parliament cannot achieve a 2/3 majority on a vote, then the fairies bring in a deadly flood that kills everyone in the Parliament.
This is a clever premise, particularly considering our current global political climate. As every Western democracy and beyond becomes politically polarized, forcing law-makers to get along under the threat of murder is a really cool concept. This is one of the main reasons I love reading fantasy; the genre allows authors to bend the rules of reality to create fantastical situations that can glance at the real world at oblique angles. Authors can comment on our current issues with larger-than-life figures and worlds. When Kelly Robson focuses her attention on the workings of the fairies and the Low Parliament, this novella sings and reaches its full potential.
However, Robson often gets distracted by other things and strays from the amazing premise that drives the novel in the early going, and because of that the novella often meanders despites only being 160 pages.
High Times in the Low Parliament follows a young, queer woman named Lana as she is imprisoned by the fairies and forced to work as a scribe for the Low Parliament. Lana is an engaging lead character; she is effervescent and fun. Despite her circumstances, she is curious and is genuinely intrigued by the world around her. Lana is the ideal audience stand-in because as the reader we are also in awe of the fairy world that Lana is forcefully thrust into.
The relationship between Lana and her fairy overseer, Bugbite, probably kept me reading above anything else. Bugbit is a cranky curmudgeon of a fairy who is equally frustrated and fascinated by Lana. Lana and Bugbite had my favorite interactions in the novella because their relationship could have easily become bitter or tiring as they snarked and snided at each other. But the relationship never descends into that annoying territory because Robson clearly demonstrates the (platonic) love that Lana and Bugbite have for each other. Despite their differences, they genuinely like and respect each other. This is a difficult character balance to maintain, and Robson does so effortlessly.
The other major relationship in the novella is between Lana and the mysterious dancer/deputy, Eloquentia. I have to admit that this is the part of the story that didn’t work for me, and every time Robson focused on this part of the story (and it is a pretty large part of the story), I just wished we got to get back to the workings of the fairies and the Low Parliament. For the novella format, Eloquentia remained too mysterious and distanced from Lana and the reader. Even at the end of the novella I never had a clear sense of who Eloquentia was, or why Lana deepened her romantic feelings. I never bought into the romance, and so the emotional core to the story that Robson was going for never resonated with me.
Robson brings a lot of creativity to the novella, but it just feels a bit overstuffed with all of the worldbuilding, subplots, and more. I really liked the overall premise of the book, but I just wish it focused more on the direct political satire because that is the strongest element of what is in the novella.
Concluding Thoughts: Robson brings a vibrant political satire to life in a world where fairies have forced humans to make parliamentary under the threat of death. The main character, Lana, and her fairy companion, Bugbeat, are both delightful and their relationship is one of the highlights of the novella. However, the core romance plot never develops enough to become convincing, robbing the novella of its climatic and emotional payoffs. If Robson had stuck to the core premise and cut off some of the extraneous stuff, this would have been an all-time great.