As a sweeping generalisation, KJ Parker’s novels are intelligent, funny, brutal, thrilling and inaccessible. Parker’s gift – one of them, at least – is turning mundane, everyday activities into extended, perfect metaphors for life and human nature; genius when you read it, but tough to sell to friends or internet readerships. As you gushingly describe a Parker novel, you’re in danger of being tagged as the sort of person who finds logistics fun.
Sharps is a departure from that, at least on the surface. The story of a Scherian fencing team sent to neighbouring Permia at the end of a decades-long war between the two nations, it’s got politics, intrigue and sword-fighting. It’s got a hook you can safely describe at parties!
Echoing the ping-pong diplomacy between the US and China in the seventies, the tour is a diplomatic tool designed to help secure the peace … or so the fencers are told. But if that’s the case, why send… them?
A traumatised veteran on the edge of snapping; an accidental murderer given the choice of this or the rope; the abrasive daughter of minor nobility; and the spare son of the general who drowned an entire Permian city. Four unlikely diplomats, managed by a retired former champion turned businessman.
None of them are entirely here by choice. Are they a sacrifice, sent to die and reignite the conflict? Or is one of their party responsible for the string of assassinations suddenly thinning the ranks of Permia’s rulers? Where does their slinky, suspicious political minder keep slipping off to whenever bad things happen? And just what the hell is actually going on?
Follow the money could be this novel’s guiding tenet. Scheria’s in hock to the financial institutions of the Western Empire; Permia’s hard-mined silver – while it lasted – went to hiring mercenary troops from the Eastern Empire and the ‘barbarian’ tribes of the Aram Chantat. With larger powers at play in the petty squabbles of two relatively insignificant countries, it’s hard not to see a of the Korean conflict’s cold-war proxying in Permia and Scheria.
There are echoes of more modern troubles, too, from the economic imbalances of the wealthy vs the other 99% through Permia’s slow-burning Arab Spring-style popular uprising and on to the political dissatisfaction of western youth. There’s an excerpt from a book – a comically dry treatise on political theory one of the fencers ends up reading, to stave off boredom on the long coach journey – which seems particularly telling:
The institution we commonly refer to as democracy would, properly speaking, be more aptly termed an elective, or even in many cases a sortative, oligarchy, where the democratic element consists merely of the selection, often by random, perverse or otherwise unsound procedures, of the membership of the personnel of the ruling elite.
But generally, this is a novel fascinated by the complexities of violence, both political and personal – and the effects it has on the wielders of that power. In fencing Parker’s once again found the perfect metaphor, where the civilised niceties of sport fencing – the etiquette, the rules, the blunted weapons – are like a silk handkerchief to hide a bloodstain.
When they get to Permia, the Scherian team are horrified to find that the Permians fence with sharps, not blunted foils – and one of the team will be fencing messer. Little more than a big curved knife, messer has no useful guards or wards – it’s a weapon of aggression and all-out attack. It’s fencing stripped of all its pretences. ‘Here they fight with messers. God help them’ is a quote from the fifteenth-century German swordmaster Hans Talhoffer, and it’s dropped again and again into the narrative of Sharps like some kind of catechism.
In the end, it comes down to what you’re willing to do. As one of the fencers says, “at least half the story’s always the reason why you do something. You can give me a whole string of things that normally you’d say were the most appalling crimes, and then I’ll give you cases where they’re not only justified, they’re absolutely the right thing to do.” (p.185)
Perspective is important in Sharps, how the place you’re standing affects your whole outlook. Again fencing proves itself an apt metaphor, as the Scherians’ style of stepping out of line – bringing a second dimension to a linear, shuffle-back-and-forth duel – dismays the Permians in an early match. Cultural differences, and so on.
But this segues easily into more substantive divisions: me and him, us and them. The other. Suidas, the bitter, PTSDed veteran, loathes the Permians (and the mercenary Imperials and Aram Chantat, and pretty much everyone really) but ironically understands them better than anyone else in the coach.
The Aram Chantat might drink from skull cups, but they’re faintly horrified that the Permians and Scherians would wave swords at each other for fun. Time and time again Parker highlights the dividing lines of culture, class and skin colour, before cheerfully turning them upside down and highlighting the characters’ damning, inescapable preconceptions:
They talked about sizing up your opponent. That made him think of looking at girls, the way he used to. Turn people into objects and you can do any damn thing to them.
Speaking of girls, however, the lone woman among the fencers, Iseutz, marks a welcome answer to a criticism often levelled at Parker – that the author’s female characters tend to be shrewish, inscrutable background furniture rather than active participants in the story.
Iseutz still has a touch of the shrew, but she’s fiery and funny and gets as much agency as any of the other fencers do – which admittedly isn’t much, but at least she’s an equal player here rather than inconsequential set dressing. It’s nice to see what Parker can do with a female character, and I hope we’ll see more like Iseutz in novels to come.
You’ll note I said funny a little way back. Did I mention already that Parker’s novels were funny? Sharps is absolutely no exception, dry and delightful, and populated by intelligent, witty characters with a tendency to savage each other without mercy. It’s hard to pull any particular quote out as overtly funny, but Parker’s sustained, almost aggressive deadpan just seems to build and build:
“It means I don’t know,” the doctor repeated. “I happen to be one of the three best doctors in Scheria, but if medical science is geography, then mankind as a species has a map with three towns marked on it and a lot of blank space with drawings of sea serpents. I think it’s your heart, but there’s about a dozen other things it could be, half of which are trivial and the rest almost certainly fatal. How old did you say you are?”
“The doctor nodded. “If you’ve got any money saved up, I’d spend it.”
“I’ve taken a vow of poverty.”
“That’s all right, then.”
At its best, the depth of the humour approaches a sublime kind of farce – particularly where each of the characters is desperately trying to keep above water and figure out what’s going on. Only the reader, by benefit of seeing the goings-on from a variety of different angles, is privileged enough to have all the pieces – but they’re jumbled up good and proper.
Sharps is Parker’s most complex work so far – no small feat – and it never panders to its audience. All the information is there, you just need to be able to extract it from what’s essentially a story of five people going crazy from claustrophobia on a long coach journey. Needless to say, this is a novel which rewards re-reading.
Because for all its epic, fate-of-nations sweep, Sharps is primarily a character study. The fencing team are fuck-ups and failures, but they’re fascinating ones – and none of them stupid. Which means they spend half their time squinting at each other suspiciously, and the other half making mistakes they know they’re making even as they make them.
The first imperative of war, his father always insisted, was to define victory; to work out exactly what you wanted to achieve. … His father was, of course, notoriously bad at chess. He always lost when playing against promising junior officers or enemy generals. But of course, in losing, he gained valuable information about their strengths, whereas if he won, all he’d have demonstrated was that he was more clever than them, which he knew already.
As Parker says in an interview over at pornokitsch, ‘Smart characters are more fun. You can do more with them, and to them. They tend to be articulate enough to say stuff that needs saying (so I don’t have to); they’ve got the ingenuity and resourcefulness to get things done; they get themselves into better and deeper scrapes.’
The scrapes here are pretty deep, and where they’re not entirely character-driven then the foibles of the characters involved certainly don’t help. It’s as though the fencers are on a kind of treadmill, where the more they try to change their essential natures the faster they’re drawn back to them.
Fate casts a long shadow over most of Parker’s novels, but I’ve never sensed it looming so strongly as in Sharps. Every swordfight feels as though it has horrendous weight – and this is a novel about a fencing tour, after all, so there are plenty of them, each impeccably accurate in the specifics and thrillingly described.
Because this is also a novel about history – its inescapability and, contradictorily, its mutability. As one of the fencers puts it:
A memory was property, after all. When there were no other witnesses to claim title to it, 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.
This is history being written by the winners, how posterity transforms folly into heroism and buries any inconvenient fact that don’t fit neatly into the conquering narrative. A brutal aside in the closing pages emphasises just how insignificant all of this is, in the long run; how the inexorable passage of time wears down even the most dramatic of personal stories into barely a footnote on the annals of history.
If there’s any justice, KJ Parker will be more than just a footnote in the annals of fantasy. But you can probably do something about that. So out you go. Buy Sharps.
This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com