Half-Remembered Books: The Starlight Barking by Dodi Smith
Packing for the SFX Weekender

The Kitschies: The Folding Knife by KJ Parker

The Folding Knife [This is the fourth in a set of five reviews - each looking at one of our 2010 Kitschie finalists. As part of our commitment to a transparent judging process, we'll run through each of the books in turn with our criteria in mind. Please take part in the discussion below!]

The Folding Knife is the story of Basso the Magnificent, the First Citizen of the mighty Vesani Republic. The events of the book detail Basso's inexorable rise to power. From financial magnate to military genius to social reformer, Basso is unstoppable.

However, he makes a single mistake - one episode in which his emotions overrule his coolly logical disposition - and that haunts him for the entirety of his life. The Folding Knife is set up as a tragedy from its first pages, and when Basso's inevitable downfall comes, it is both swift and merciless.

Note: I'm captivated by the mystery of Parker's anonymity. Rather than bend over backwards with "(s)he", "his/her" and "them", I flipped a coin. KJ Parker will be referred to as "her" for the remainder of this review. 

Progressive (but not wanky): Parker writes the sort of fantasy that makes people question the definition of "fantasy". There are no wizards in The Folding Knife. No prophecies, flying assassins, non-human races, nor magic of any sort (except some ingenious accountancy). The only cleric in these pages isn't a mace-wielding bane of the undead, he's a scheming monk from Auxentia with a firm grip. The whole thing has a distinctly historical feel, except, of course, it is completely outside history.

And that's where the fantasy element comes in. The world - its shape, size, physics, history and culture - exists only to support Parker's storytelling and her thematic motivation. Were there dragons and demons floating about, they'd be an unnecessary distraction. And were this taken to a more realistic extreme, and created as a historical fantasy, the reader would come burdened with their own preconceptions of what it means to be "Roman" or "Byzantine". By building her own sandbox to play in, Parker ensures that we only focus on the most important toys.

The stripped-down setting is rare in a genre that too often gets bogged down in the quagmire of world-building detail. Parker focuses on financial chicanery and political tactics because those are relevant to the story (or to the story's over-arching theme). Lingering on the dress-sense of the Auxentines or the myth-cycle of the Mavortines would be completely unnecessary and Parker deftly avoids that indulgence.

Moreover, the over-arching theme of The Folding Knife is one rarely found in fantasy: perception. Granted, the idea of perception does crop up every now and then, generally in the context of some illusory barrier between the protagonist and Absolute Truth. See, "Labyrinth" or The Sword of Shannara: "This is all an illusion! Poke it with the truth-sword!". Fantasy traditionally deals in absolutes, a solidly defined dichotomy of shining right and apocalyptic wrong. As long as you're not an Orc, you understand that Mordor's plans are Bad (and Orcs themselves have to be crafted out of Evil Putty in order to explain why anyone would ever willingly fight for Sauron).

In The Folding Knife, Parker clearly establishes that Basso's is one of many, many possible protagonists all orbiting the same set of events - he just has the advantage of being the one that Parker chose. Basso's sister, the villain of the piece, has a completely different interpretation of the same events, as do Basso's nephew, his two sons, his best friend and his wife.

This is an extreme form of the unreliable narrator - The Folding Knife isn't just told in the third person, but also the only motivations the reader is given are those expressed by the characters to one another. Basso, depending on his context at the time, variously attributes his own actions to greed, love or pure animal instinct. The other characters each choose to believe him (or not) and respond (or not) in their own fashion. The reader, given exactly the same set of facts for reference, must make their own decisions. If there's a single thing that Parker does make clear, it is that there are no moral absolutes. If you think Basso is good/bad, that's a legitimate interpretation, just not one that the author dictated to you.

Intelligent (but not arrogant): A political novel isn't more intelligent simply by virtue of the fact that it's a political novel. However, Parker uses the imperial context of Basso's life as a way of upping the novel's stakes. Basso isn't a hooded assassin or chivalric swordsman, earning redemption one foe at a time. He's the dictator of a rising civilisation. He can end slavery to impress a woman and found a golden age to make some pocket money. His decisions, however venal or trivial their motivation, impact thousands of people. As he grows in power, the consequences of his actions expand exponentially, culminating in his ambitious attempt to build an empire and the book's tragic conclusion.

Also - and traditional high fantasy fans can briefly rejoice - Parker has finally written a novel that doesn't revolve around complex blacksmithing metaphors. Instead, for a book in which no word is wasted, the characters spend a lot of time bandying around the pros and cons of the Vesani gold standard. To Parker's credit, the economic focus is the tangible expression of the book's conflict between powerful personalities. Rather than slinging spells or swinging blades, the characters in The Folding Knife rough-house in more subtle and far-reaching ways. It demands more from the reader, but by expressing everything as cleanly and clearly as possible, Parker does her share.

Entertaining (but not trite): Parker's streamlined style means that, whatever the moral complexity of the book, it is easy to read. Breaking virtually every rule in Creative Writing 101, Parker relies heavily on "saids" and "asks" and avoids using any sort of flowery, non-vernacular language. The result is a lot of complicated characters discussing complicated topics in the simplest way possible - the book's message may be difficult, but the book itself is not. 

For the sake of the topics above, it is easy to dwell on the difficult messages within The Folding Knife. But, taken at face value, this is a book about tragic romance, nasty warfare, conniving politics and vicious family squabbles. Certainly entertaining, and very far from trite. 

My primary complaint about The Folding Knife is that it is simply too short. Parker has written three trilogies - and proven three times that she can write longer works while still maintaining the same seductive brevity of style. For a story as massive in scope as The Folding Knife, Parker could have used more room in telling it. The abrupt switch to the epistolary style for the final chapters is testament to this - the change in style feels like a makeshift way of juggling the focus on Basso with the geographically-estranged needs of the plot. With more time and paper space, either Bassano could have been set up as an alternative narrator, or the change in style could have been established as a recurring mechanism. 

This complaint ("I WANTED MORE") should be taken at face value. The Folding Knife is a compact epic - the rise and fall of a compelling figure, delivered in Parker's mesmerizing, no-frills style. It introduces relativity to a genre of absolutes, makes finance interesting and leaves the reader with plenty to argue in the pub.

So what do you think? Is The Folding Knife our 2010 Kitschie winner?