The Folding Knife by K.J. Parker
Bassianus Severus - known to the people as Basso - is the First Citizen of the Vesani Republic. He is politically savvy, financially creative, ruthlessly ambitious and very lucky. As his power and prestige grows, so does the rift between him and his sister, and the battle for the loyalty of her son.
The Folding Knife is the eleventh novel by the enigmatic K.J. Parker, a stand-alone book which is not part of any series. Fourteen years ago I picked up Parker's debut novel, Colours in the Steel, and later its two sequels and enjoyed them enormously. I've missed out on her books since then, which is something I'll have to rectify. The Folding Knife is outstanding.
This is the story of a man's life, or rather a twenty-year slice of it, but mostly focusing on the three years after he becomes First Citizen of the Republic. Basso grows up learning the family trade of banking, and through canny deals and excellent advice he soon becomes one of the richest men in the city. He then moves into politics, using his common touch with the people and his skills of persuasion and blackmail with the nobility to become the ruler of the Republic. He even has a long-term plan for the entire nation: to strengthen its borders and increase its resources against the threat of competing kingdoms jealous of Vesani's growing military and economic might.
Basso plays the Republic like an instrument, working out how to make the people and politicians jump to his tune. However, as the story unfolds Basso's inability to mend the feud with his sister or make foreign powers likewise obey the rules he sets out both become dangerous, leading to more desperate gambles. There's a strong economic spine to the book, with Parker successfully showing how expensive it is to run a large kingdom even without trying to fund major wars. In fact, I'm wondering if the economic storyline is a commentary on the current financial crisis, with Basso's self-justifications and ability to conjure money out of nowhere to keep things going just a bit longer being more than slightly reminiscent of recent news stories on the banks and national governments almost going bankrupt.
Basing the story on economics could be deathly dull, but Parker's well-paced writing, solid characterisation and dry sense of humour keeps things ticking along nicely. Basso is a well-written protagonist, monstrously flawed but also sympathetic, with his genius at handling money and politics contrasted against his disastrous relationships and his empty personal life. Basso's story is something of a tragedy then, but one with more than its fair share of humour and ingenuity. Also, by Parker's standards it's not that dark or disturbing (there's no Belly of the Bow 'moment' of unexpected ultraviolence here), though her twisted sense of humour remains intact. She also reigns in her tendency to interrupt the story for a three-page digression on the best way to build trebuchets (though there is one detailed explanation of how to use a scorpion - a piece of field artillery - as a stealthy assassination weapon, but this is quite funny so fair enough).
This is a strong novel with only a few brief but well-described moments of action, with the focus being on political and economic intrigue. Intriguingly, whilst set in an (unmapped) secondary world, there is no magic or mysticism in the novel at all, but this lack is barely felt.
As for criticisms, the tight focus on Basso means we don't get much of a sense of the Republic or the wider world beyond his own views on it, but that's the point of the story, I suppose. The ending is also perhaps a little underwhelming (and whilst it's not the first in a series, the ending is open enough to allow for a later sequel, if necessary). The reasons for Basso's sister's hatred of him are also under-explored, since we don't have any POV chapters from her. Finally, there are moments when things go as clockwork and Basso finds things going all his way that feels a little too clinical and not allowing for the unpredictability of human actions, but the latter part of the novel repays that in spades, so that's not too much of a problem.
The Folding Knife (****½) is an engrossing, page-turning economic and political thriller, executed with finesse by one of our best (but possibly most underrated) fantasists. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
KJ Parker is one of the most interesting epic fantasy authors around, a perfect fit for those who like say Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch (though she predates both by a decade). Might have to try to catch up with her other work in the near future.
Seventy years ago, a colony was founded on the western tip of an unexplored landmass. The colonists were supposed to mine silver, but didn't find any. Instead they farmed and lived in uneasy peace with the natives to the east. Later, the noble met'Oc family fled to the colony as exiles. Living on an impregnable plateau and raiding the colonists for livestock, they have not been the best of neighbours. Gignomai met'Oc, the youngest son of the family, rebels against his father and is disinherited, sparking a series of events that will define the future of the family and the colony.
So, what do you call a novel which is not SF, which is set in an invented world but has no magical elements in it whatsoever, but where the spine of the book revolves around science and engineering? Science Fantasy? Fantasy Engineering? Of course, this is such a narrow field that you can simply call it a K.J. Parker novel and anyone who's read her* work before will know what you're talking about.
The Hammer is Parker's twelfth novel and is a stand-alone book, not part of any series, although it is set in the same world as just about all of her work. Those familiar with Parker will know what to expect: a cast of complex characters who fail to fall into neat categories of good and bad; a dry, black sense of humour; and an occasional tendency to turn the book into an engineering treatise for a few paragraphs.This latter trait is usually extremely important to the plot, which in this case turns on the different calibres of primitive bullets and the practicalities of setting up a factory, but can slow down the narrative at key moments if the author is not careful.
As usual, the book revolves around one character, in this case Gignomai, a bright lad who - understandably - does not want to spend his whole life living on a plateau farmstead with his distant father and somewhat ruthless brothers. Gignomai is a familiar Parker character: one man with a grand vision who is able to prevail over those of lesser vision through a mixture of ruthlessness, good team-management skills and thinking outside the box. In this case, however, Gignomai is also reliant on his friend Furio, whose essentially serves as his conscience, and Furio's father Marzo, whose unexpected diplomatic skills during a crisis end up with him being declared de facto mayor, to his own distress. These three characters form the core of the novel and drive forward the plot. They're all well-realised, but it's disappointing that a promising female character, the would-be doctor Teucer, almost vanishes from the novel after being set up as more of an important player.
The plot is somewhat complex and involved, relying as it does on mysteries, sleight of hand and the economic workings of the colony, although the small scale of the book means it's easy to keep everything straight. Parker has a deliciously twisted imagination and sense of plotting, and keeps the pages flying by as you try to work out what's going on. The novel is on the short side for an epic fantasy (if that's what it even is) at 400 pages, and Parker's prose style - deceptively straightforward writing masking more complex characterisation - is highly readable.
Overall, then, The Hammer is a fine novel that's fairly compelling and well-characterised. Where it falls down is that Parker's air of cynicism - present in most of her works to varying degrees - is a little too dominant here (instead of being more nicely balanced, as in the splendid Folding Knife) and some of her economic ideas are rather odd. The book initially presents the colony as being set on a poor landmass, with some valuable resources but nothing too special, explaining its small size. The later suggestion that it's on the edge of a mostly unexplored continent just a week's sailing from the Vesani Republic not so much beggars as breaks credulity. How has this land not been colonised on a much larger scale already?
Still, despite these lapses The Hammer (***½) remains an above-average novel from one our better and more interesting fantasy writers. It's certainly a lesser work from Parker, but one that's still worth checking out if you can overlook the minor faults. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
* No, I don't know if Parker is a man or a woman, but I'm going with the majority view that she's a she in the absence of any other information.