Sharps by K. J. Parker
K. J. Parker is one of the few authors in the industry who explores the unusual territory of the stand-alone novel. In a time when the trilogy rules and the ongoing series fill the shelves, we lose sight of the beauty of a well-crafted novel that is completely self-contained. Sharps, a novel of politics and swordwork, is a masterful example of the form.
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“For the first time in nearly forty years, an uneasy truce has been called between two neighbouring kingdoms. The war has been long and brutal, fought over the usual things: resources, land, money…
Now, there is a chance for peace. Diplomatic talks have begun and with them, the games. Two teams of fencers represent their nations at this pivotal moment.
When the future of the world lies balanced on the point of a rapier, one misstep could mean ruin for all. Human nature being what it is, does peace really have a chance?”
I had a little trouble getting into this book initially, because there is just so much going on. Several characters are introduced and their character arcs set up, the political situation is laid out, and the fencing team is formed. It’s a lot of information to present without making it feel like an information dump, and while Parker does a good job with this set-up, readers will have to be paying close attention, lest they miss something important.
Once the novel gets going, though, everything falls into place. Just as unusual as the choice to write a single-volume story is the author’s use of an ensemble cast. Each characters initial introduction fits into the main plot, and they’re so well-drawn that when questions arise about whether or not one of the party members has orders to create havoc, you really have to wonder who it might be. All of the characters have reasons for being where they are. Some of those reasons are revealed a bit more slowly, but all contribute to the plot.
Interestingly, readers get to know the two countries, Permia and Scheria, in two entirely different ways. The Permians, members of the fencing team that the plot follows, show us the values and beliefs of their country through the close-up examination of their actions and motives. Since they leave Permia soon after the plot begins, it’s about the only way to get to know their national point of view. In contrast, the Scherians don’t really have a lead character to represent them, and thus we learn about them in broad strokes, through watching them as a people. And even so, what readers often realize is that there isn’t a great deal of difference between the two nations. People are people wherever you go.
All of this combines into a novel that is intricate and rich in detail. As the fencing team progresses through Scheria, they constantly hover on the edge of great happenings, and being privy to their speculations on what is going on makes up for the fact that they’re on the fringes of events. Parker keeps the tension high as the team moves towards their final match, and what could be an action that begins a terrible war.
I’d love to read this novel again, because knowing now how things fall out, it would be interesting to go back and see how all of the seeds of the book’s climax were sown. Sharps is a dense story, full of action and battle, but also with flashes of humor and wit. I’ve enjoyed Parker’s other novels, and this one is no exception.
Also by this author: The Hammer
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on September 17, 2012.