K. J. Parker
Orbit, July 2012
I’ve heard a lot of good things about K. J. Parker, her/his (the author’s name is a pseudonym) Engineer Trilogy (amongst two other earlier series) has been well regarded amongst critics. With all the praise for Parker’s previous work buzzing in the background I decided to the give the author’s recent stand alone novel, Sharps, a shot. As the novel begins there is an uneasy peace between the nations of Scheria and Permia; two nations that have been at war for nearly 40 years. As diplomatic talks are begun a team of Scherian fencers are selected and sent (not all willingly) on a fencing tour of Permia; pitting themselves against the best that the other nation has to offer. Of course all is not quite as it seems and intrigue and betrayal dog the steps of our often hapless fencers across every inch of their journey.
The definition of fantasy is something that can be argued about nearly without end. Truth of the matter is (at least in my view) is that beauty of fantasy is that it can be anything we want it to be. I note this because in Sharps the elements of the fantastic are completely non-existent. Parker has invented a whole new world in which to set this novel; drafted a rich, vibrant and violent history but beyond the setting there is little else to distinguish this as a fantasy novel. No dragons, no mages, no eleves, no fairies just a realistic world that isn’t ours. Truth be told this sort of pure realistic fantasy isn’t my particular cup of tea. However Parker’s exploration of two societies born and grown accustomed to war and violence works best when unencumbered by our own historical past; by crafting a unique world Parker frees readers from expectations set forth by our own experience.
Over the course of Sharps, Parker introduces readers to a cast of well drawn and realistic characters. Parker assembles a motley team of fencers consisting of Suidas (a drunk, a fencing champion, and a war hero), Iseutz (a woman looking to avoid marriage who seems to be perennially cranky), Giraut (a student and amateur fencer whose amorous tendencies landed him in jail) and Addo (son of the great general Carnufex and pacifist). Leading this group you have an aged wool merchant and former fencing champion, Phrantzes, strong-armed into position. Watching over the whole “diplomatic tour” is the completely slimy and utterly distasteful Timizces who never seems to be around when the trouble starts. As the novel starts readers are introduced to many of these characters and the situations which has prompted their placement on the fencing team. Once these characters are brought together Parker’s ability with characterization comes to the forefront as the interaction of the team’s members further begins to define their personalities and motivations.
As the fencing team sets out on their journey it becomes immediately obvious that all is not as it seems and that there are plots afoot in which the fencers appear to be mere pawns. Disaster upon disaster seems to follow the team on their journey and Parker does a great job at keeping readers guessing as to what exactly is going on. It becomes increasingly easy over the course of the novel for readers to internalize the frustration and anger of the fencers whose perspectives make for the bulk of the novel. Parker also shows a keen grasp when it comes to action scenes with the duels the fencers participate in some of the most entertaining one-on-one action scenes I’ve ever read.
Intrigue, humor, and action propel Sharps forward. Lightning quick dialogue and strong sense of character further draws the reader in. While it might not appeal to fans of magic-laden fantasy, readers that enjoy strong writing in a realistic if fictional setting should definitely give Sharps a shot. In the midst of all the action and excitement, and thanks mostly to the deft characterization and world-building, Parker has produced a novel with a surprising and welcome amount of emotional and philosophical weight that examines the deep scars and last wounds left by prolonged war and ingrained violence. I’ll definitely be looking for whatever K. J. Parker comes out with next.