Sharps by K. J. Parker
Reviewed by Nathaniel Katz
25 July 2012
Sharps is K. J. Parker's fourth standalone novel since moving away from the trilogy format. As one might expect from Parker, it's a hilarious and gripping read that throws in more than a bit of politics, economics, meticulously accurate period weaponry and fighting techniques, ruminations about everything under the Permian sun, and a team of starkly drawn characters.
In an interview at Pornokitsch, Parker mentions "Cold War era ping-pong diplomacy" as an inspiration for Sharps, which features four fencers sent over the border into a kingdom long warred with to, through their international fencing tour, foster peace and understanding. Later, in an interview at Bookworm Blues, Parker discusses the influence of the Arab Spring. Permia's government is teetering on the edge; the mining that formed the basis of its economy may soon be politically impossible, and, as the fencers begin their tour, civil unrest sweeps the land. There is blood in the streets, and government officials begin to die.
But more than it is about either the Cold War or the Arab Spring, Sharps is a novel about sword fighting. Or, to put it more broadly, about violence. "A wise man once described violence as just another form of communication," one character remembers early on, "and another wise man called fencing a conversation in steel" (p. 85). Violence and communication are inextricably linked here, right down to the book's very core, the mission that is at once about peace and about sticking the other side with the pointy end of your sword. Violent acts are not ends in and of themselves. When the fencers complete with their opponents, when the crowds surge at the narrow line of mercenaries the government deploys in an attempt to keep order, when a government official falls to the assassin's premeditated strike, or when the fencers stumble upon the seemingly inexplicable carnage of a battle fought amongst supposed allies, the focus is never on who is left standing but rather on what it means that they are still standing, on what message was conveyed by that act of violence, on the originators of that message, and on the repercussions.
Parker writes rational books. Everything has a cause; every effect follows logically from its cause. The outcome may be totally unexpected, but that is because the reader does not have all the pieces, not because it was up to chance. Addo, one of the fencers, observes that war and life are, at least in a K. J. Parker novel, "a bit like chess . . . only you're playing against someone who thinks ninety moves ahead, so once he's moved one pawn one square, you might as well give up, because you're as good as screwed already" (p. 259).
But that's not to suggest that Parker's characters are small people caught up in larger events and tossed about with no control of their own, for Parker writes fiercely intelligent characters; some measure of reasoning mastery, perhaps even of genius, seems to be just as much a requirement for admission into a K. J. Parker novel as a cutting wit. Our protagonists think, plan, reason, and try to understand. As Addo's father tells him, "Strategy and tactics are everything. They're the whole of life. War is just a tiny part of it" (p. 125).
The situation is not handed to the characters, or to the reader, in easily digestible info dumps; instead, those trapped in it must decipher it, and decipher it they do. Each character develops their own theories and refines them continually based on new evidence, doing their best to work out who's organizing this grueling trip and who is working for them to fail. Though each character soon ends up with a different theory, each seems credible, and, on many issues, an overriding authorial ruling never comes down; it's up to the reader to pick among the explanations offered or to delve deeper and connect the seemingly disparate events viewed by separate eyes into one coherent whole.
All of this deduction is not, however, merely an exposition-dodging method of plotting. Parker's characters have lives and concerns beyond the boundaries of the novel's pages, and they turn their observant rationality on themselves, on each other, and on everything around them. One character takes the metaphor of sword fighting and uses it to hew into their memories of their troubled past: "When there were no other witnesses to claim title to it, they reason, the memory belonged to you. It was no crime to bend it a little, to dull the edges, put a button on the point so it was no longer sharp. Only a fool would carry an unsheathed knife in his pocket" (p. 107). Later, the bitter and violent veteran, Suidas, is convinced that "there's nothing, absolutely nothing that any of us wouldn't do, if we had to" (p. 184), and he tries to prove it to the others with a conversational game between bouts. The rest of the cast is just as prone to flights of metaphor, amorality, and bizarre reasoning as those two. Sharps is a novel without a single didactic conclusion, but that's because it has so many fascinating, perfectly reasonable, and totally irreconcilable conclusions within it. Often, Parker's novels begin to seem like attempts to understand the world through the trying on of five or six bizarre, brilliant, and cynical logical lenses in quick succession.
This need to understand may explain why Parker returns so often to violence, not only in the pages of Sharps but in every other one of the author's books. For while much of what Parker's protagonist turn their wryly piercing gaze on can be dissected in a single pithy line, a few pages of rumination, or even novel, violence defies any such attempt to decode it. Often, Parker's geniuses are left with nothing but baffled incomprehension when they turn their rationality towards violence. As a result, Parker's fight scenes tend to become a strangely riveting mixture of technical manual and black farce. The fencers are, needless to say, expert swordsmen, and they are perfectly capable at outlining in what precise measure and at what tempo they slaughtered their foe, but the sheer and hideous absurdity of that slaughtering leaves the scene lying midway between comic and sickening.
One of the first fight scenes in the novel comes when the fencers are approached by bandits near the border. The scene of the trained heroes laying waste to the plundering rabble is not an unfamiliar one to most readers of Epic Fantasy. Generally, it's done to quickly show how martially superior the main characters are. Looked at solely in terms of plot points, Parker's execution is not so different; the fencers do, indeed, kill the bandits to the last man without incurring a single casualty, even if one of their number does freeze up at the thought of spilling real blood. But Parker's writing firmly removes the incident from the reams of comparable exercise in establishing badass credentials:
Giraut could see them now, a dozen shapes on the skyline. They appeared to be walking at normal speed, like ordinary people on their way somewhere; it was impossible, surely, that they were coming to do anybody any harm; that that was what death looked like. He watched them grow ever so slightly bigger. Ludicrous, he thought. Perfect strangers don't just stroll up to you and start killing you. The world simply doesn't work like that. (p. 83)
But, of course, the world does work like that. Showing the entire scene would take up far too much of this review to be justifiable, but the tone of the opening is maintained throughout that and throughout every one of the novel's other violent encounters.
I should probably mention at this point that Sharps is a novel and not an abstract philosophical treatise on violence and whatever else. Parker's characters do deduce, and they do so at length, but they are also people, and Parker's skills at portraying humanity go beyond our most logical moments. Each of the fencers has a distinct personality, and the forced confines of the touring coach leave them with no choice but to interact with one another constantly.
The traumatized veteran soldier promised a stupendous reward, the retired champion forced into managing the tour, the inadvertent murderer given this one last chance, the brilliant general's son, and the mysterious political officer are all brought to life and given quirks and depth. Though my favorite of the bunch is Addo, Iseutz is a particular treat for longtime Parker fans and a very welcome (and necessary) step forward for the author. Parker has been often (and justly) criticized for having a repertoire of female characters that includes the inconsequential, the backstabbing, and the inconsequential and backstabbing. Finally, in Iseutz, we get a woman with as much screen time as the men, as much agency (even if that's still not much), and as much of a past and a life.
For all their violent skill and genius-level intellect, Sharps's protagonist fencers are, nonetheless, forced into a rather passive role. They are shepherded around Permia, brought from one city to another with no say over their destination, most of them not even willing participants in the tour, as the country falls apart around them. Of course, the government's deterioration and the fencers' passage aren't quite as unconnected as they first seem. It becomes clear before long that someone on the tour has an agenda that goes rather beyond survival or even victory.
There is a killer in the fencers' midst, and Parker hides their identity in plain sight. More than that, even. Our viewpoint switches through the fencers' party on a scene by scene basis, but, while we see through the killer's eyes, we do not know who they are. To accomplish this, Parker walks the fine line between a mystery mantained only by cheap tricks and a tensionless reveal at the word go. For the most part, Parker succeeds, managing to show us the character's lives and thoughts without ever quite discerning their ultimate goals or motivations.
One scene goes farther; obscuring the viewpoint character's name, which allows them to tell the readers the next step in their plan. To be perfectly honest, I'm still not sure if the scene is clever or cheap. On the one hand, it is fascinating to try and identify the perspective through the character's voice and through what they know. On the other, it does seem to violate the idea of being in someone's mind if their very name is kept artificially hidden from us, and, in order to keep up the mystery, Parker does keep the viewpoint here from conversing with or even mentioning the other characters.
Though the big reveal is a long time coming, and though the fencers do spend a long time guided about the Permian roadways and guild houses, Sharps is never boring. Parker keeps the reader's interest with the characters' conversations, the set piece escapes that come at the civil unrest's height, and, above all, delightfully droll prose. As always, Parker's writing is at once easy to understand and often filled with unexpected gems of wit and sarcasm. Upon seeing the extent of his Permian fame, one fencer feels "distinctly uncomfortable, as if a sorcerer had stolen his soul on the mistaken belief that it was valuable" (p. 435). Earlier, a member of the fencers' escort who worships Addo's father's victories, views the fencers "as if he'd just seen God throwing up in a shop doorway" (p. 311).
Ultimately, I don't think I would rank Sharps with Parker's very best work, but it is nonetheless an extremely successful Epic Fantasy. It's clever, questioning, and funny, has a cast of well developed characters, and has a plot arc that, though initially hard to discern, eventually strikes as true as its champion's lunge. Besides which, it gave me a whole host of new moves to try and fail at next time I fence.