New Releases: Sharps by KJ Parker
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
The SF/F blogosphere has been a nest of Parker fandom for years. Three trilogies, a half-dozen stand-alones and a handful of short stories... viewed from the inside of the bubble, it seems like the Parker 'tipping point' is long overdue. KJ Parker has been writing brilliant books for almost 15 years, so why has the broader world been so slow to recognise it?
Arguably, part of this delay is due to the content of Parker's last few books. Since the Engineer Trilogy concluded in 2008, Parker's standalone novels have been grueling (The Company), really grueling (The Hammer) and about economics (The Folding Knife). Taken superficially, there's little there to entice in readers treading water between George R.R. Martin releases.
Of course, once inside the books, they're perfect: political, ambiguous, complex, brutal, quick - everything that readers like about contemporary fantasy is here, executed flawlessly and with razor sharpness. But there's still that missing first step: "Are you watching Game of Thrones? Great! Well, here's an extended metaphor about lumber mills. You'll love it!"
Enter Sharps. Sharps is, for lack of a more poetic way to put it, the first commercial KJ Parker novel. The one where the elevator pitch - swords, sports and diplomacy - is just as appealing as the text itself. And you know what? It is marvellous. Sharps not only has all the wit and complexity of Parker's other work but also hearty doses of glory, romance and adventure.
Sharps is set in two small countries, Permia and Scheria, that live in the shadow of greater empires. They fill that shadow with violence - Permia and Scheria were at war for decades, and now glare at one another in a tense (and tenuous) cease-fire. Despite their bitter rivalry, the two countries know little about one another. Their spies and agents scuttle back and forth across the demilitarized zone, but, as far as the greater population is concerned, their rivals are totally alien.
The one passion that unites both countries is fencing. Sharps begins in Scheria, where a handful of unlikely fencers are recruited to form a national team and invited to tour Permia for exhibition matches. They are the first planks in a great diplomatic bridge - some of the first Scherians to enter Permia (as guests) in over a decade, and a vital opportunity to reconnect the people of the two countries.
Naturally, no sane person would want to be involved, so the fencers are encourages through a variety of persuasive means. Suidas is a master of the art (and deeply in debt). Phrantzes, the manager, is a former champion (with a wife in 'protective custody' by the government). Giraut is a talented amateur (and is facing a prison sentence for murder). Addo is another skilled young fencer (and his father is known for drowning an entire Permian city during the war). Iseutz, the lone female member of the team, has perhaps the least sinister motive: it is either this or stay home and get married. Somewhere between zero and five (inclusive) of the team are also spies, traitors, psychopaths, evil geniuses and heroes. Of course all of them are far more complex characters than these blithe summaries, motivated by forces both secret and overt.
What the characters aren't is stupid. They're cunning, clever, self-interested people with authority, confidence and complex motivations. Much something by Le Carré, they spend a great deal of the book doing their best to trip one another up.
Sharps also appeals through its surprisingly epic scope. Although a long way from writing a 'chosen one' narrative, the book has a more familiar fantasy structure than Parker's other work: five reluctant heroes are off to save the world. Parker has repeatedly written about the impact of small people on great powers, but, in the past, the focus has been entirely on the individual. The Engineer Trilogy, for example, is about one man's plot to change the face of the world. But the face of the world is incidental: all he wants is to go home. The Folding Knife is similar - a man sets out to forge an empire, but all he really desires is the love of his family.
Sharps differs because the characters are subject to the great scheme, and not the other way around. However clever Addo, Giraut and company are, they're merely pawns in the great game. They're enslaved to the mission - their own schemes merely amount to how much they can wriggle on the hook.
A side effect to the above is an unusual amount of world building. Permia and Scheria are brought out in a detail that the other worlds (or parts of world, singular) have never been. Sharps is a less abstracted book - the two countries and the empires that surround them become very real. As well as the expected detail about swords and blades and fencing, Parker adds in some unexpected trivia. The reader is introduced to the pickled hash of Permia, their bizarre sporting posters, the small town politics and the muddy roads.
If the characters' native Scheria goes relatively undescribed, it is because the book spends less time there. Similarly, the book begins with the assumption that Scheria is important (that's home after all); it is just "the Republic". By bringing in the detail of Permia, the latter becomes a real place too: a country that is a home, not a collection of faceless hostiles, lurking across the border. The presence of powers from other parts of the world - the urbane military officers of the Eastern Empire and the enigmatic mercenaries of the Aram Chantat - further reinforce the politics and the scale of the fencers' mission.
Characters, structure, world-building are all part of Sharps' appeal, but if this is Parker's 'break-out' book (and it will be), much credit is due to the central topic: swords. This is a book about fencing - more than that, it is a story that does its best to explore the line between sports and war, play and death. Sharps is a bloody book with every sort of battle from genteel foil fixtures to cavalry battles to brawls in the street. Each probes a little further into the causes and results of violence. Why do people do this? What does it do to them?
Our five fencers, as mentioned above, are an impressive lot, but they have to be - they've spent their lives toying with bladed objects. When their comfort zones are disrupted, the sheer deadliness of their sport comes crashing to the forefront. In Scheria, they duel with foils and blunted longswords, in Permia, they use lethal cutting blades called 'messers'. Ostensibly, the Permians' attachment to using such a brutal weapon portrays them as vicious barbarians - but Sharps is quick with the greater point: disguise them as you like, swords are made for killing. There's only so much you can play with a weapon, sooner or later, it will be called on for its ultimate purpose.
With all the flying steel of Sharps, a bit of swash and buckle is inevitable, yet Parker stays on message: life and death, politics and war - all riveting stuff, but they're never games. And for those that persist in taking these things lightly: Here they fight with messers. God help them.
Packed with sharp edges and provocative points, Sharps may be the book that fantasy readers have been waiting for. Not necessarily for Sharps qua Sharps (although it is undeniably great) but because its crowd-pleasing premise should serve as the long-awaited gateway drug to Parker's entire world.