The Hammer was released this January, the latest novel from the prolific and enigmatic KJ Parker. (All reviewers are bound by contract to refer to Parker as “enigmatic” – amazing what writing under a pseudonym will do for you.)
Parker’s books all share several common elements: mainly tight plotting and an absorbingly bleak view of the world. There are no clearly delineated heroes and villains in Parker’s books. The cliché would be to declare it all a matter of perspective, but Parker gleefully toys with that as well. Parker enjoys self-aware protagonists: “heroes” that question the morality – even the relative morality – of their own actions.
In The Hammer, the lead character is Gignomai met’Oc, youngest son in the met’Oc family. The met’Oc are exiled nobility, living in squalor in an unnamed colony far from Home. They are (or were) quite a powerful family and, perhaps more importantly, they have the colony’s few guns. The rest of the colony is composed of farmers and trappers – trading their wares back Home for those manufactured goods they need to survive. Outside of the colony, an unknown quantity of Savages rove at will, doing their best to stay out of everyone’s way.
The three factions share an uneasy peace. The met’Oc are rich in pride and poor on material goods, so they raid the outlying farms for the essentials of life. The colonists tolerate the met’Oc because they’re believed to be the first line of defense against the Savages. Besides, they’re nobles – raiding and depravity are what they do, right? And the Savages actually don’t believe in anyone else. This isn’t stupidity, but a sort of wilful ignorance brought on by their view of the world: the colonists and met’Oc don’t make sense to them, so the Savages simply refuse to acknowledge their existence.
Gignomai, through the course of the book, upsets this delicate status quo. For his own private reasons he sets in motion an elaborate and terrible plan that will change the lives of everyone around him.
Again, readers familiar with Parker’s work will see this coming – virtually all of his/her books focus around exceptional individuals, their complicated schemes and the devastating impact that that one person's single-minded purpose can have on an entire society. Often, as in The Engineer Trilogy, the scheme itself is the focus of the book, with the motivating force taking a backseat. In Parker’s latest-but-one, The Folding Knife, the balance is shifted and the book focuses more on motivation than execution. The Hammer falls into the latter category – Gignomai’s scheme is interesting to see unveiled, but the focus is more on uncovering his motivation and, once learnt, deliberating over the “rightness” of his actions.
Adding a further veil of complication is the recurring discussion of belief. The met’Oc are nobles because they believe they are genuinely superior – a notion that Gignomai ostensibly eschews but still embraces through his every action. The colony members also believe in met’Oc nobility – the only thing that prevents them from lynching them with pitchforks. The Savages are believed to be a threat, but then, their own belief prevents them from ever being a danger. These layers of belief aren't mere matters of individual perception, but a deeply engrained system of faith that keeps the cogs of society turning. Gignomai is the first person in the colony willing to challenge everyone's politely-shared preconceptions. He’s driven by another set of beliefs that override them, and this is what gives him the strength to overturn the whole apple cart.
The sole flaw in The Hammer is a tacked-on denouement that spells out the karmic resolutions that had, previously, been only implied. It is an unworthy footnote to an otherwise exceptional text. One of Parker's strengths is the ability to write ambiguous endings, and the closing pages of The Hammer are an airy wave of the hand to readers expecting a satisfying resolution - and a rude gesture to those that aren't.
I would also, and this is a purely selfish criticism, prefer a return to trilogies. The space of three volumes lets Parker raise more elaborate narrative questions and then dive deeper into exploring the answers. Although I appreciate the rigorous regularity of the recent stand-alones, I’d happily trade frequency for depth.
Parker knows how to tell a story and how to keep it trotting along. Even whilst tackling the Big Questions, The Hammer is held together by an unadorned writing style that makes the book seductively readable. Parker is one of the most challenging and courageous authors in genre fiction, using abstracted settings and streamlined narratives to address complicated, difficult questions. He or she is doing exactly what fantasy could do, and so maddeningly rarely does.