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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"Sharps" by K.J. Parker (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu and Mihir Wanchoo)

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Liviu): Sharps is vintage KJ Parker but it is also the most complex of the author's standalone novels, bringing elements from all the author's oeuvre and connecting with earlier works like Purple and Black which is alluded in the book - though of course as it is KJ Parker, the details may not be precisely the same. But this is one of author's trademarks, describing a deep but mutable history which depends on who is writing it.

Two former border provinces of the Western and Eastern Empires left independent more or less as detritus after the Empires' long war a few hundred years ago, manage to get into a war of their own for the possession of a barren border land-strip that is rumored to contain huge mineral deposits

More populous Scheria and richer Permia go at it for a long time - some four decades: Scheria with conscript manpower, Permia mostly with Imperial and barbarian mercenaries, "the Blueskins" and the Aram Chantat respectively, in addition to their less numerous conscripts - but ultimately they both run out of money and people. The military aristocracy which ran the war
in both countries falls from power and goes mostly bankrupt, while the new governments - the Bank in Scheria and the mine owners in Permia - are in an uneasy seven year truce at the beginning of the novel in 614 AUC.

However the last and most notable feat of war, the total flooding and submerging under water of a major Permian city, by the best general of the war - and some say, best such in centuries - Scherian general Carnufex known forever as "The Irrigator" gave Scheria the "moral win" though as mentioned both countries are almost bankrupt as the treaty negotiations go nowhere fast so the riches of the DMZ cannot be exploited to prop both economies.

Adding instability
silver mining, the mainstay of the Permian economy, is getting competition in the Eastern Empire while the plotting by the members of the aristocracy like Carnufex - retired with honors but privately seething at the current government of Scheria - does not help, when a new factor that can make or break the situation appears, namely a Scherian fencing team has been invited to visit fencing-mad Permia and give three exhibit games.

And in the first few pages we get to meet the quite unlikely members of the team:

Suidas Deutzel (mid 30's), fencing champion of Scheria, habitual drunk with an expensive actress girlfriend and numerous creditors to satisfy from his
game to game winnings, former war hero or war criminal depending on who tells it and who badly needs the money the Scherian government offers him for a trip to Permia; of course as he is not that stable there is a clear possibility he may run amok and restart the war single handed.

Iseutz Bringas (early 20's) - the one girl on the team, she is tall and not that polished, a former junior ladies champion from a middle management bank family, who accepts the highly risky tour as an alternative to a political marriage.

Giraut Byrennius (early 20's) - perennial student from an upper class family, highly skilled amateur fencer who prefers bedding university girls to almost anything else including work and study, until his latest "conquest" leads him into big trouble, so it is the gallows or Permia for him.

Addo (Adulescentulos) Carnufex (24), youngest son of the Irrigator - out of 4, three surviving, one dead in the war - good fencer as all the aristocratic scions, pacifist, chess master, highly intelligent and attractive who worships his father; however the general seems to regard him with contempt for his pacifist views.

And then we have the team manager/coach, 51 year old wool merchant Phrantzes, former three time fencing champion of Scheria - record at the time -, former supply major under Carnufex in the war, recently and somewhat scandalously married to a 37 year old lady of foreign and unseemly origins - former prostitute etc - who is "convinced" to lead the team despite being manifestly unsuited and unwilling. 

Supervising them, political officer Timizces, anonymous looking and always disappearing when bad things are ready to happen and the **** starts looking like hitting the fan. And of course there are the secrets, personal and political, the power players, real and pretend, the machinations and the intrigue. High stakes indeed and quite unclear what chance at survival our five unlikely heroes have.

For people familiar with the author's work, Suidas is not unlike the heroes of The Company, Addo not unlike Gignomai from The Hammer - or as the author prefers Miel Ducas from The Engineer trilogy - Iseutz not unlike the heroine with the same name in the Fencer trilogy though with less baggage, while Giraut and Phrantzes are the seemingly expendable nobodies that appear in various places  - including for example Ziani in the Engineer trilogy/

 What is the right thing to do, can the honorable thing be wrong and the  dishonorable thing be right, the ambiguity of morality as dictated by circumstances etc etc - among the numerous superb touches of the book there is a game the heroes play when each names a thing they are sure they would not do under any circumstances and the cynical Suidas creates scenarios under which they agree they actually would do it - all the familiar themes of the author's work combined with great prose and world building.

Outstanding and I would say this is probably the best KJ Parker novel so far and definitely a huge favorite mine alongside The Hammer, The Scavenger trilogy and Purple and Black which so far are my personal favorites from the author's work. Top novel of the year to date and a guaranteed top five by the end of 2012!

 It’s also perhaps a tale of fencing or as the author quotes it as “a conversation in steel”. Most reviewers who have read it have had fulsome praise for it. For me it’s a tale of people that are talented fencers but are sent on a mission of peace, warriors that have to use their martial skills to help broker peace between warring provinces lest ruin might touch both. It’s an inherent contradiction in terms of the characters and the plot that makes this book a good one and another excellent fable from the cunning mind of K.J. Parker.

The story begins in a meandering manner, wherein the author introduces all the main characters. And the lot is varied, a murderer, an ex-soldier, a son of a famous general and a couple of others. Amidst the introduction, the background situation is revealed through character dialogue as is the vogue seen in previous KJP novels.   

From here on the story slowly unfolds as the reader is taken in to Permia along with the fencing party and slowly and surely the reader picks up on details regarding the war, character backgrounds and Permian-Scherian culture. The first part of the book has an uneven pace until the story reaches near the middle point wherein a few key events occur that shake up certain status quos and reveal what truly is at stake.

The pace then picks up and it is from here on that KJP’s cynicism and trademark dialogue flow to make the story reach a tumultuous but very much satisfying ending. The characterization of the book is the one thing that is the best piece of this entire story, as the reader will get to know these flawed but highly captivating characters that make you engrossed in the story without a care of the world outside. 

What also helps is that each character is unique and interesting; they individually could power a singular story themselves and in KJP’s hands make the story intriguing beyond a doubt. Another excellent point about the book is the dialogue across several occasions while seeming focused on the events in the book has a very crucial subtext about human nature and the vagaries of life, war and history. 

This book came very close to her previous work “The Folding Knife” which is an all-time favorite of mine because of the characterization and plot however TFK was a story wherein everything clicked. Not so much the case in this one as the uneven pace of the earlier half might hamper the read for some readers’ especially first time readers. I would very much request all virgin KJP readers to start with TFK just because I think it’s the epitome of her storytelling style.

“Sharps” is another excellent story from a devious mind and with it being given the requisite push from the publisher as well. It will only help KJP’s cause and perhaps spread the world among fantasy fans about one of the most under-appreciated fantasy writers of the 21st century. If you haven’t read any of her books, do so soon if you want something different in your current fantasy reads.


Miw said...

What was the resemblance between Iseutz Bringas and Iseutz Hedin you saw? Loredan's niece seemed a lot more independent and driven than Bringas was, and I don't remember Hedin whining her head off every opportunity she got! Aside from name and gender, plus being a fencer (in a KJ novel, who ISN'T?), I don't see the similarity!


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