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Sunday, May 23, 2010

More Favorite Series: Scavenger by KJ Parker (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

KJ Parker at Wikipedia
Order Shadow HERE
Order Pattern HERE
Order Memory HERE
Read FBC Rv of The Folding Knife
Read FBC Rv of Purple & Black
Read FBC Rv of A Rich Full Week

INTRODUCTION: In addition to reviews of new books, I have decided to do some posts about my favorite series and books written by contemporary authors. Recently I reviewed the mainstream/sfnal Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and then I did a short overview of the "essential core-sf" Commonwealth/Void series by Peter F Hamilton where we already have some reviews here at FBC, so I decided to do a fantasy post next and I chose Scavenger by KJ Parker which is my second favorite finished fantasy series after the superb six volume Kushiel's Legacy by Jacqueline Carey.

After this I plan to do another "mainstream books" post either with one of my two top non-sff series Roma Sub Rosa by Steven Saylor or Masters of Rome by Colleen McCullough or a top novel like The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell or The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears.

OVERVIEW/STRUCTURE: One of the reasons Scavenger has climbed so high in my estimation is its "affinity" with my top all time standalone sff novel Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks, both having at their core a ruthless soldier/killer with a mysterious past who wants nothing more but to "do good" or at least be left alone and in peace but whom mayhem and destruction follow. Of course the style and world building of the two authors are quite different and here we will focus on Shadow, Pattern and Memory who comprise the Scavenger trilogy. In a global overview like this there will be some spoilers but I will try to keep them at a minimum.

The setting of the series is a fraying empire at a pre-industrial level which is beset by civil conflict, bands of mercenaries and mysterious pirates who have been raiding for some tens of years with overwhelming success, burning cities and villages and leaving no survivors behind. In addition there is the famous "Order" of assassin/philosopher monks theoretically subordinate to the dominant religion of the Empire, subtle magic and mysterious Gods, one of whom Poldarn signifying the end of the world in fire and ashes and who is prophesied to appear in a cart and not know he is Poldarn until the apocalypse...

In addition there is a completely different culture, agricultural and patriarchal who developed in isolation on some islands far away which are almost devoid of metals, so the people there became telepathic and almost hive like farmers who cherish uniformity and tradition before all and need to get their iron and steel from somewhere else; the main geographical feature there is a dormant volcano who echoes Poldarn's myth...

Shadow is a book about the mystery of the main character who finds himself a memory-less sole survivor on a small battlefield and who seems to have an affinity with crows. Violence follows him from the beginning and while he soon finds he is very good at killing, he wants nothing more than to distance himself from all that and try and start a new life. Our mystery pov encounters a cart with a woman who cons small villages by pretending to be the priestess of Poldarn and since he kills her so-called "God" companion in a scuffle, the woman recruits him as con-God and names him Poldarn...

Numerous twists and turns, tons of violence from battles to assassinations, flashbacks, encounters with lots of people who know him but somehow or another do not get to tell him whom he was, climax in a sequence of battles that end with our narrator finding out his birth name, Ciartan and his mixed islander/imperial heritage, though without recovering his memory in the least. Shadow is end to end dark action fantasy of the highest caliber.

While ostensibly Pattern explores the different culture of the Islanders and allows Poldarn/Ciartan to present us a view of a telepathic society from a sort of "regular" human, it is also about exploring the layers of Poldarn's childhood and teen years and about how his mixed heritage slowly made him a stranger in a society that values uniformity and predictability before all else. Very different in pace and ultimately even darker than Shadow, Pattern was the best novel of the series for me since it mixed action with "sense of wonder" and while seemingly "lateral" to the series to a large extent, it is actually crucial in the formation of both the early Ciartan/Poldarn and the new older and still partly memory-less one.

And of course Memory comes full circle and explores both Ciartan/Poldarn of the early Imperial/Order years and his rise to the sort of "dark lord" status implied by all in the first volume as well as continuing the tale with the "new" Poldarn who is inexorably pulled back into the thick of things however much he wants to be just a simple blacksmith. Tying up most of the novel threads, Memory is a superb trilogy ending.

"You'd like to know, I bet. That way, you'd have a clue, you'd finally be able to figure out who you are. Sorry, no chance, but I'll tell you this much. This is an imperfect world, and most people are partly bad. Sometimes, depending on the way things happen, they find themselves in circumstances where the bad part of them comes to the top and they do terrible things, because they have to, or because it's safer or easier. You can't really blame them, because you can imagine circumstances where you'd do the same yourself, they're a mirror you can see yourself in, and all you can do is hope that you'll never end up in their shoes, do the things they found themselves doing. But you aren't like that. You're a core of evil with a few layers of flesh and skin, just for show. Everything you did you did because you wanted to, and that's where I can't even begin to understand you, because you didn't stop at greed or ambition or advantage, you just kept on going, like you wanted to be the end of the world."

While the above may or may not be true of the early Ciartan/Poldarn - Pattern and Memory explore the question in detail - this paragraph defines the essence of the novel. If a man with good intentions creates mayhem and destruction wherever he goes, by accident, by self-defense, by refusing to die if you want, is he evil because of the results of his actions, or is he not because of his sincere intentions and beliefs? Because with the dark irony of the author, the new memory-less Poldarn will commit - mostly unintentionally and unknowingly or in seemingly legitimate self-defense - acts that are more terrible than the ones in the past...

As content goes, the series is just one twist and turn after another, frenetic action in the first and last novel, with a more "sense of wonder" exploration of a seemingly familiar but strange culture in the second book, while all the main characters both Islanders and Imperial from the women in Ciartan/Poldarn's life to his friends and classmates in the Order, to the power brokers of both cultures are just memorable. There are prophetic dreams and visions and of course crows everywhere, while fire and sword run rampant.

The only small negative I found in the series are some continuity errors especially between the first two volumes (some minor characters that we are told are dead in Shadow appear in Pattern and there are some age discrepancies) but on balance there is nothing essential that a little edit cannot fix it.

While not for everyone both for its dark and brutal content and for its somewhat unusual structure that I appreciated a lot but I easily see how it can put off readers used with a more conventional narrative, Scavenger is masterpiece core-fantasy that shows how the genre can grow and evolve if not subject to the constraints of traditional tropes and storytelling modes.


jeannine said...

I should really check out this series.

The Reader said...

Hi Liviu

Thanks for this review, I had wanted to pick this series after finishing The Folding Knife and was going to ask you about it.

K.J. Parker has been a surprise for me esp. TFK as earlier I had read only 1 book of hers the Engineer trilogy book 1 and it somehow didn't quite click for me, TFK on the other hand is definitely in my top 10 reads for this year. Plus I'm also looking forward to her novella Purple and Black.


Liviu said...

I liked The Engineer but less than Scavenger and Fencer for two reasons - the whole concept of manipulation of people on that large a scale stretches the suspension of disbelief a bit and the last novel is too short and too predictable to a large extent; however there is a lot of great stuff inside too and the Valens and Ducas threads are excellent but Ziani lacks somewhat the weight to carry the main concept of the series

Fencer is the most traditional of the KJ Parker series to date and it has two volumes (1 and 2) that are awesome, but volume 3 while very good in itself takes the trilogy in a direction that comes almost out of nowhere and that I liked somewhat less; in itself The Proof House is quite good but the combination Colors in Steel + Belly of the Bow + The Proof House does not mesh as well as Scavenger.

I still think Fencer one of the best fantasy series around and there is awesome stuff even in the last volume

ediFanoB said...


I'm a lucky man because I got the Scavenger trilogy from my wife. It was her present for me on our 19th wedding anniversary on 10th of May.
After your review I decided that I should read the trilogy in June. And in June I expect the delivery of my The Folded Knife copy which you also reviewed recently.
I never read four books by one author in one month. But now it can happen....

shaneo52 said...

Liviu, How would you compare KJ Parker to George RR Martin?

shaneo52 said...

Is the Scavenger series as cool as ASoI&F?

Liviu said...

The Scavenger is different: more cynical,darker, more violent as well as less extensive in territory and characters; also the writing styles are different, KJ Parker writes more understated and with subtler humor, GRRM more exuberantly with wilder humor; Joe Abercrombie is a better comparison at least as attitudes go.

shaneo52 said...

Thanks for that, Liviu. I'd like to get into these, I just need to make some reading time.


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