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Sharps - K.J. Parker (with mini-interview)

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sharps - K.J. Parker (with mini-interview)

KJ Parker has a new novel. May the heavens part and the angels rejoice. In novels past Parker has given readers stories about "...economics, alchemy, blacksmithing, armor-proofing, bow-making (and fletching, and archery in general...), siege equipment, volcanoes, charcoal and buttons", to quote Pornokitsch. In Sharps, fencing is the name of the game, with a side order of détente. It's a wholly engrossing addition to the Parker library, providing a tremendous entry point for new readers, while falling just short of Parker's best.

An uneasy truce has been called between Permia and Scheria, two neighboring kingdoms with four decades of bad blood between them. The war has been long and brutal, punctuated by the wholesale flooding of a major city courtesy of a Scherian General subsequently dubbed the Irrigator. With a legitimate chance for peace, it's time for an olive branch, a coming together of two countries over a shared passion -- fencing. In this way, Sharps reflects real world history, namely the end of World War II and the following rise and fall of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

I suspect that the forty year mark for the war between Permia and Scheria was hardly coincidence for Parker, as the same number of years characterizes the length of the Cold War. Likewise, some of the tensest moments occurred every four years at the Summer Olympics. It seems an odd spark, but not all countries saw the Olympics as a place for competition, instead favoring it as a validation of an ideology. Sharps take this notion and exploits it.

Fencing, in Scheria, is an art form, a sporting duel with blunted instruments. Thanks to the Irrigator they won the war and with it a belief in their superiority. When they form a team of fencers to send into Permia for the "peace tour" it's with an absolute belief in victory. So much so that it's viewed as an exhibition of Scherian supremacy, not a genuine competition. Reflecting that, the Scherian team isn't exactly the cream of the crop as it relates to fencing, including a alcoholic fencing champion, a murdering nobleman, the lesser son of the Irrigator, a woman who refuses to marry, and coached by an aging fencer turned businessman who's in so far over his head he can't tell which way is up.

A grosse messer.

The Permians fight with sharpened blades to first blood. Rather than favoring the elegant art form of fencing, they prefer the messer, a short bladed weapon whose only purpose is raw aggression. In short, the narrative that the Scherians hoped to create falls hopelessly short in the face of reality -- true war between equally committed parties assures only mutual destruction.

These kinds of extended metaphors are Parker's money-maker, so to speak. It's the hallmark of a Parker novel, abstracting complex ideas from the most mundane of activities. Unique from previous novels, Sharps uses an activity that resonates with fantasy readers more so that any other, sword fights. For once, describing a Parker novel doesn't involve selling the reader on reading on lathes or mortars and pestles. This makes it Parker's most marketable novel to date, and potentially the novel that propels the author into the upper echelons genredom.

That said, Sharps isn't Parker's best novel, an opinion driven largely by a lack of clarity as to the motivations behind many of the characters actions. Perhaps a commentary on the nature of war and conflict, or the "invisible hand" to steal an economics term, I found it more frustrating than intriguing. I could see many new readers coming to the novel for the sex appeal (swords) and find themselves a tad perplexed by a very twisty web of political machination. I suspect that Parker's exceptional characterizations and perfectly precise prose will overcome those difficulties for most, but even this dedicated fan could have done with a bit more of Parker's typical directness that's been so prevalent in previous works.

I still consider Sharps to be one of the better novels I read this year, just not the best KJ Parker novel I've read this year (Devices and Desires holds the latter distinction). Parker is a magnificent writer and one I insist everyone try to read as soon as possible. Sharps is a good place to start for new fans, but I wouldn't hesitate to start with The Folding Knife or any of the previous trilogies as well. In other words, just start reading. Please.


Below is a mini-interview from a series of questions I sent to KJ Parker via Orbit Books. Only a few of my questions were answered, but it's my understanding several other blogs will be running answers to questions as well and Orbit will be collecting them at weeks end. Keep your eyes peeled.

Justin: In an article you wrote for Subterranean, “Cutting Edge Technology: The Life and Sad Times of the Western Sword,” you talk quite a bit about how swords have evolved, and why. In Sharps there are four types of sword used by the fencers – the longsword, smallsword, rapier, and messer. The first three are mentioned in your essay, but not the last. Yet it is the weapon most intertwined with the narrative. Where does the messer fit in the history of the sword?

KJP: The messer doesn’t really have a place in the aristocratic family tree of the Western sword. It was a farm tool. Messer is just the German for ‘knife’. The grosse messer was a large version of the everyday utility knife. A modern analogy would be the Nepalese khukuri, or the bowie knife on the American frontier. Humans being as they are, they tended to turn their cutting tools on each other in moments of stress. As with the khukuri or the bowie, the messer doesn’t naturally lend itself to defensive plays – it was designed to cut things, not to ward off blows or be hidden behind, unlike the purpose-designed weapons of the upper classes, whose design is all about still being alive at the end of the fight. Because a purely intuitive fight with messers would inevitably be short and lead to mutually assured destruction, extremely complex and sophisticated combat techniques evolved to enable messer fighters to survive encounters (if you get no help from the weapon, you have to try harder). A considerable literature on the messer survives from 15th century Germany – there’s a complete manual illustrated by Albrecht Durer, no less. I stole the line “Here they fight with messers; God help them” from Talhofer’s manual; it was that line that gave me the idea for the book. For me, the messer stands for functional savagery, the desire to actually hurt people, as against the more civilized weapons, which represent a desire to win (you can’t be said to have won if you’re dead or in bits) I guess that’s why Addo, who deliberately loses at chess, starts off as a complete no-hoper with the messer, and then evolves a way of subverting it to achieve victory with the minimum of slaughter.

Justin: I've found inherent self-interest to be one of the hallmark traits of characters throughout your different novels. From Vaatzes in the Engineer Trilogy to Basso in The Folding Knife to The Irrigator in Sharps. All of these individuals will do almost anything to someone opposing their ambition/desire. It rings true to me. What attracts you to writing these kinds of characters? Do you believe in altruism?

KJP: I believe in altruism; to acknowledge its existence isn’t necessarily the same thing as approving of it unreservedly. Altruism, like most good intentions, has a nasty habit of being transmuted by the law of unintended consequences into an instrument of havoc and misery. A fair proportion of the Conquistadors and the 19th century Imperialists were sincere altruists, honestly believing that they had a duty to save heathen souls from the everlasting bonfire.

True unalloyed altruism is also quite rare. I’m rather more interested in alloyed motivations, driving conflicted characters operating in the Demilitarised Zone between good and evil.

Justin: Having read quite a bit of your past work, Sharps seems to be the novel that most clearly indicates that your novels are set in the same world. Can you confirm that?

Parker: “Set in the same world” – hm. If so (which is not admitted), there’s no intention to create a coherent historical narrative in the manner of, say, Asimov’s Foundation (which is something I would rather like to do, at some stage). If it is the same world, then each sequence of events is separated from the others by several centuries; the Mezentine rapiers in Sharps are irreplaceable antiques, rather as a Byzantine-made artifact would’ve been in the seventeenth century.

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At July 5, 2012 at 10:26 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Very well done.

More grist for the "I need to read Parker" mill. :)

At July 5, 2012 at 11:00 AM , Blogger Niall Alexander said...

You need to read Parker, Paul!

Anyway, a terrific review, Justin, as ever.

At July 5, 2012 at 5:53 PM , Blogger Douglas Hulick said...

Swords and politics? I dunno man--not sure if it's my kind of thing...

(pre-ordered it on Nook weeks ago :p )

At July 6, 2012 at 6:26 AM , Anonymous Jared said...

I'm now waiting for Parker to rewrite Foundation.

At July 6, 2012 at 7:57 AM , Blogger Jordan said...

Sounds like an entertaining book. Thanks for the review and interview. I almost bought the first book in the engineer trilogy the other day, but decided to hold off and try Sharps first. Justin, which is your favorite Parker novel? I'm hoping Parker is a new author (to me) that I can dig into!

At July 6, 2012 at 7:59 AM , Blogger Justin said...

I haven't read them all, but FOLDING KNIFE and SHARPS are both great standalones, but I think the ENGINEER TRILOGY is incredible. I'd start there.

At July 13, 2012 at 7:54 PM , Anonymous Kat Hooper said...

Thanks for the interview -- it was interesting to learn more about K.J. Parker!

At September 4, 2012 at 12:44 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

This isn't the first K J Parker novel involving swords. What about The Fencer Trilogy?


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