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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"The Folding Knife" by KJ Parker (reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

KJ Parker at Wikipedia
Order The Folding Knife HERE (Read Inside available)
Read FBC review of Purple and Black

INTRODUCTION: After a slightly inauspicious beginning - when I read The Company on publication several years ago, it was my first KJ Parker novel and I was so shaken by it that I quipped "first and last KJ Parker novel" as my first impression, though I read it breathlessly in one setting - KJ Parker's books have vaulted to the top of my fantasy lists.

Despite the quip above, The Company stayed with me for a while and I decided I have to explore my reaction to it. I tried something else from the author, namely "Devices and Desires" (Engineer 1) and "Shadow" (Scavenger 1) and when those books turned out to be superb and became big time favorites, I got and read all the author' s books to date and any new KJ Parker became an automatic top five anticipated title.

In consequence The Folding Knife was my most anticipated fantasy of the early 2010 and possibly of the whole year and it was all I have expected and more.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: The Folding Knife stands at about 440 pages and follows the main hero Bassianus Severus, aka future First Citizen Basso "The Magnificent" for about 40 years from the day of his birth. The years before accession to the elective executive power in the Vesani republic are snippeted in about 50 pages recounting various incidents that will form Basso or that highlight his character, so in a sense the main action of the novel starts on page 51; of course what came before is crucial to what follows. There is a prologue which actually is the first half of the epilogue, so it will make complete sense only later since it is interrupted in mid-story and completed at the end of the novel.

Since the story takes place in a secondary-world which will be examined next, it is core-fantasy. However it has no magic and it is quite different from the rest of the field as all the other KJ Parker's novels are for that matter.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "On the morning of the day when Basso (Bassianus Severus, the future First Citizen) was born, his mother woke up to find a strange woman sitting at the foot of her bed. Her husband was away somewhere on business, and the servants slept downstairs. The woman was dirty and shabby, and she was holding a small knife."

These lines which constitute the opening of the novel proper, introduce us to the "folding knife" of the title and give a perfect example of the author' seemingly quiet and understated style that actually explodes in intensity from time to time once the impact of what you have just read percolates; the follow-up to the above hook opening which shows the resourcefulness of Basso's mother - let's remember she is nine months pregnant and due any time, when confronted to a possible robber or worse - allows us an inkling of the powerful story that will follow. The knife - kept as a sort of trophy and presented to Basso on his tenth birthday with its accompanying tale - will stay with him for a long time and will become a powerful symbol as we learn in due course.

The world of the novel is a pitch perfect example of how to create an unique setup based on familiar Roman and Byzantine templates but with a crucial difference, namely the lack of a messianic religion.
A good way of looking at it is as a modern world without religion and technology in the way we understand them, or in another way an "what if no messianic religion with a message of the possibility of human betterment" - which however long it took, essentially led to our technological world - appeared, but the flows and ebbs of the ancient Greek/Roman/Byzantine world continued for another thousand years or so.
It is very similar to the world of the Fencer trilogy but without any overt magic like there and lots of names carry over modified a little. There are lots of naming jokes and allusions to the classical world
and while I spotted a few, I am pretty sure I missed some.

The action takes place mostly in the City State of Vesani which has a sociopolitical structure somewhat similar to Republican Rome with its noble families, a parliament of 139 seats based on "wards" and a First Citizen elected every 3 years for a maximum of 3 terms; however as opposed to Rome, Vesani is commercial, maritime without land possessions, the "noble" families are ranked mostly by wealth rather than by ancestry, all fit male citizens are required to serve in the navy galleys, while the army is mercenary and hired at need with several "barbarian" officers as full time staff; same with labor which is based on free or slave non-citizens. So in that respect the Vesani Republic is more like Athens without the hoplites/cavalry or like Carthage but with a western outlook.

Basso (aka Bassianus Severus) is the son and grandson of First Citizens though his father almost ruins himself after losing his reelection to a "sausage maker" when in a fit of pique he buys a ship which sinks on its first voyage for him; he gets lucky with Basso's "dowry" money (Basso gets betrothed at 14 to a rich but less pedigreed girl for 1 million) buying a bank this time and by luck making good money and having one Antigonus Poliorcetes (a financial wizard eunuch slave and one of those naming jokes that add so much to the novel) to lead it.

The Folding Knife is written almost flawlessly with the same understated, cynical voice of KJ Parker's oeuvre, though this one is arguably the most idealistic of all the author's novels and Basso is the author's most idealistic character who wants to do good in a "real world" way through a combination of wealth, populism and intrigue with "war is an admission of failure" as his motto. Of course his past, his relatives, the internal Vesani politics and the geopolitical situation may make this quite an impossible task as his advisers occasionally point out when Basso lets some of his flights of fancy known to them - free the slaves, are you kidding?, extend franchise to non-citizens, sure you are mad, let women of "good families" be more than ornaments and marriage pawns since after all look how well many non-citizen women that work do, this is madness...

But if anyone can pull it off, Basso the Magnificent is the one.

The book is also a page turner that you do not want to put down, though I forced myself to read 100 pages, reread them, read another 100 pages, reread them, another 100 pages, another reread and then the last 150 pages, a reread of them and then a reread of the whole novel, so in this way I could both enjoy and savor the book as well as keep the tension which ratchets through to the finale.

Complete and superb - though of course if the author chooses so, the universe of the novel provides lots of opportunities for further stories - The Folding Knife is master storytelling, great character study and much, much more. An A++ .


Anonymous said...

how many bookmarks are you using?

Liviu said...

No bookmarks, just memory; for the books I *really* look forward to, I tend to do this a lot - read a chunk in whatever time I have the day I get the book, then next day, reread the first chunk (faster of course) and then move to another chunk...
Salute the Dark was another one I read like this, but in 2 or 3 chunks and A Mighty Fortress the most recent.

In contrast most books I read sequentially, some even over longer period of times

Mike Johnstone said...

A very fine and engaging review.

I keep running across Parker's name, always in the context of high praise, so I am becoming intrigued enough to check out her work.

I'd truly appreciate suggestions for where to start.

Liviu said...

As standalones The Folding Knife or The Company are good places to start, though personally I still love Scavenger the most (Memory, Shadow, Pattern).

Purple and Black is another great starting point though I do not know how widely available is

Euroknife said...

This is a most have book the folding knife.

Primum Agmen said...

I think the actual style the author was going for follows more from the Venetian Republic than anything else. The story borrows themes from the Venetian Republic's conflicts with Byzantium, or even perhaps with the Ottoman empire.

Regardless, a ridiculously good book, and I really do hope the world gets expanded on with later stories, political intrigue done right is always enjoyable.

Liviu said...

For some reasons I tend to look at the author's work under the Greek/Roman/Byzantine lens, but I see your point and it's a very good alternate one

Anonymous said...

I'll need to find this book..


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