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Thursday, December 30, 2010

"The Hammer" by KJ Parker (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

KJ Parker at Wikipedia
Read KJ Parker' story Amor Vincit Omnia HERE
Order The Hammer HERE
Read FBC Rv of Blue and Gold
Read FBC Rv of The Folding Knife
Read FBC Rv of Purple & Black
Read FBC Rv of A Rich Full Week
Read FBC Rv of The Scavenger Trilogy

INTRODUCTION:Pseudonymous author KJ Parker has made a name in fantasy with 12 novels, 2 long novellas/short novels and 2 short stories of which you can read Amor Vincit Omnia free online at the Subterranean site and get a flavor of the author's work.

I have talked about The Scavenger trilogy, while the standalone The Folding Knife is one of my top five novels of 2010. The author's books share some characteristics: setting in a generic pre-industrial society with Roman/Byzantine overtones and naming conventions, dark humor, detached narration, love of details especially about metal working, sword fighting and pre-industrial engineering, themes of betrayal, civilization versus "barbarians", group of extraordinary friends and family feuds that spill into the larger picture.

The Hammer expresses some of these themes to perfection, using a far-off colony island of an unnamed aristocratic republic whose population is rigidly divided into three: an isolated exiled noble family, the met'Ocs and their patriarch whose shadow looms over the novel, though we mostly see his three sons in action, the subsistence-level farmer colonists who regard the met'Ocs with a mixture of fear, resentment and jealousy and the enigmatic and remote natives who seem to be incomprehensible to the mainlanders and with whom the colonists thinks they have an unspoken truce. Crossing the implied and sometimes formal boundaries, Gignomai, the youngest met'Oc tries to fulfill what he perceives to be his destiny...

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: For readers familiar with KJ Parker's work, The Hammer can be summarized as the family drama of The Fencer series, the driven hero of The Folding Knife and the setup of The Company.

On a big island, there is a small subsistence 70 year old colony of farmers and shopkeepers mostly indentured, taxed and generally kept at that level by Home on the mainland through a charter to The Company which brings them the needed goods in return for large amounts of beef and animal skins/pelts; the colonists are allowed no weapons and no ships.

But on a nearby plateau - The Tabletop - impregnable from 3 parts and walled on the 4th - an exiled noble family from Home, the met'Ocs made their - illegal as far as Home is concerned but nobody bothers since they still have friends in power - estate/fortress and they are armed and pretend to keep Home's traditions, though they are poorer than the colonists in many respects, except in books, some more advanced stuff from Home and weapons; of course most of them are dreaming of being recalled and reinstated if their allies manage to gain control Home. The current generation, third since their exile, consists of 3 brothers and a sister, while their father is the patriarch with absolute powers - including life or death - and their mother imported from Home is negligible.

Stheno(mai) the elder and a huge man is the "farmer" in charge with feeding and clothing them and is continually harried by this or that. Luso(mai) the second son is the hunter/warrior who keeps the peace and leads a "gang" recruited from the no-gooders of the colony with occasional cattle raids - the colonists do not mind that since all cattle is Company's - but sometimes for other stuff like pigs or chickens about which the colonists care but can do little not having guns...
Gignomai the youngest is more or less surplus so he has no definite role which allows him to "break out" often to the colony where his best friend Furio Opello is the son and nephew of the most important men there by some accounts since they run the monopoly store that sells Company's goods.

We see Gig at age 7, mysteriously called "Seven Years Before" when he solves a problem with an animal eating the chickens, at 14 in the "Year When", in charge of some pigs, his "first command" and finally from age 21 on - "Seven Years After" - when he decides to leave Tabletop and make a living for himself away from his weird family; or maybe he has different and more momentous plans...

Then there are the "savages", the original nomadic inhabitants of the island who had so far left the colony in peace. And of course things will never be the same...

The Hammer is
more personal and intimate than the author's earlier books and in some sense it is the "cheeriest" of all, though of course the term is relative. The novel also asks some of the questions that the author has been exploring in his fiction: how far does one go for "justice", how far does one go for a "noble cause", can a "bad" person do considerably more "general good" than a "good" person, what is civilization?

The Folding Knife treated the same themes at a more impersonal, state politics level, but here everything is close and personal with no quarter given. The dark humor and superb style of the author are on display continually through the novel, while the twists, turns, jaw dropping moments characteristic of a KJ Parker novel materialize often, sometimes in ways familiar from other novels though with enough of a change to read anew, sometimes in ways that confounded my expectations as a "veteran" KJ Parker reader.

We also have the occasion to meet a remarkable set of characters including a mainland aristo cousin of the met'Ocs who is on a "temporary" trip to avoid trial for "sort-of murdering" her husband as she charmingly puts it to Gig, all for his or at least his family's own good by the way, though understandably said family does not quite see it that way, a shopkeeper who finds himself in charge of more than his store and tries to "do good", an elderly native who is quite weird to say the least and a girl shipped from Home to her uncles on the Island and who dreams to become a doctor in a staunch patriarchal society, though the always enigmatic Gignomai, the good natured Furio and the other two met'Oc brothers are center stage throughout.

While in The Folding Knife, "the knife" was clear from page one though of course its true significance had to wait a little to be uncovered, here "the hammer" is more ambiguous since there are a bunch of them, literal in several incarnations - usual hammer for nails, huge hammer in a forge, hammer of a gun - and figurative that play important roles...

As a big fan of the author's work, I had the highest expectations for The Hammer (A++ and provisional top novel of 2011) and they were surpassed because in addition to the usual great stuff I expected and got - characters, memorable moments, prose style, twists and turns - the novel has great balance and offers a truly complete and satisfying experience you want to revisit often.


rifkida said...

Hi, I really like your blog, but I find myself frustrated when you post covers of books you like in a mish-mash. It's frustrating because when I click on a larger image the titles are not visible on some books and then I look for a list and I have no idea what I'm looking for of course!

I highly suggest when you post a picture of all the covers of books together that you also publish a list of the books. I know it would help me!

Thank you

Liviu said...

That's a great suggestion; for the last post with favorite titles I included the list of titles inside the post, but I will edit it with the list under the covers.

Clicking through the cover collage gets a bigger picture, but I agree that some titles are harder to see.

Anyway, great suggestion and I will make sure the list is either displayed or linked clearly.

Chad Hull said...

I've yet to read any of Parker's novel length fiction. I loved all the shorter works I've come across. I'm making an effort to read more new releases and so I think I'll give this a try.


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