Saturday, June 30, 2012

Review: Sharps by K.J. Parker

Sharps is the latest from critically acclaimed author K.J. Parker (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). It’s a stand-alone second-world fantasy with no magic in which a rather motley team of fencers is assembled by the government of a small nation to perform a diplomatic tour through a neighboring nation with whom 30 years of war is only barely a memory. The fencers and their coach are caught up in events beyond their understanding as their trip seems to go wrong at every turn.

Sharps is the first Parker novel I’ve read (I have read a short story or two previously) and I’m surprised it’s been so long with her* impressively positive reputation among my fellow blogger/reviewers. This of course led to me having quite high expectations for this book. The result – it’s complicated. My initial reaction and one that I held throughout reading is that it’s a good book, a really good book, but I still was expecting something…more. However in retrospect, I only become more and more impressed with what Parker does with Sharps. Parker’s writing is polished, it’s clearly the work of seasoned writer and lacks any obvious weaknesses. Parker’s writing is subtle and complex, and my appreciation of this only improves with time.
I like a book with sophisticated and nuanced politics – the truth is that few books in the SFF genre really pull politics off very well. Generally, even books that gain a reputation for having complex politics typically show the nuance of an idealistic congressional candidate running for their first term in office (suffice to say, I hope for more). Parker effortlessly weaves subtle, complex politics into the background and foreground of Sharps. And it’s the effortlessly aspect that stands out so starkly – even the SFF books that do politics really well leave me thinking how the author really worked hard to make it so. That’s not the feeling I had with Sharps – in retrospect, the superbly presented politics were so well constructed that they truly felt effortless. And while to some it may seem to be only a semantic difference, to me it’s an important distinction that places Parker’s writing among the best in genre, and perhaps at the top.

Parker builds well-rounded, flawed and realistic characters. Read pretty much any review of Parker’s writing and it gets discussed, so I’m not going to go beat a dead horse on this one. But I do want to discuss a very fine line that Parker walks in dealing with the points of view in Sharps. As the plot develops and our band of wayward fencers continues along a journey in which nothing seems to go as planned, a sense builds that there is something more going on. It’s clear from the very beginning that there is more than meets the eye, though exactly what that is remains a mystery. And while some will call it a spoiler, I’ll go ahead and say it – at least one of those fencers knows what’s going and has plans that go well beyond fencing. Only we don’t know who or what until pretty much the moment of the big reveal (and we even get a red herring or two along the way). And here’s the fine-line – we see points of view from all of the characters throughout the book in a limited third person perspective – a perspective where we get into the heads of the characters and come to ‘know’ them pretty well. Yet the mystery remains. I’ll be honest, I don’t know how Parker pulled it off, and sometimes I’m not sure she does. But in retrospect, even though I sometimes wonder if she really pulled it off or not, I can’t help but admit it was handled masterfully.

Parker has a fair bit of fun in other ways with Sharps – there is a nice little bit of subversion of the standard barbarians of fantasy, she has some interesting things to say on the role of sports in contemporary society, draws some rather sharp parallels with some the on-going financial and political struggles in our own world, and throughout there is a running conversation between the words on the page about the motivations and consequences of violence at scales ranging from conflict between to individuals all the way up to wars between nations. It’s not didactic, but it’s not exactly subtle either and it sure makes it look like she’s a fairly bitter cynic.

Parker has gained a very good reputation for her brand of dark, gritty, grim-dark fantasy (or whatever term you choose to call it), and from what I see in Sharps, it’s a well-earned reputation. Sharps is a book of subtly, nuance and rather fun adventure that is masterfully executed. And it only gets better the more you think about it. While it’s the first book I’ve read by Parker, it most certainly won’t be the last. Any fan of fantasy that is looking for more than the traditional absolutely needs to be reading her work.

*The identity and even the gender of K.J. Parker is not known, but as described here, the prevailing ‘guess’ is that she is female, so I choose to refer to her as such.


Justin said...

I think there's something a little lacking ultimately in SHARPS and I had a hard time putting my finger on it. For all its greatness, I feel like there's a lack of connectivity between some of the characters motivations, particularly Suidas, Addo, and Ituez. It didn't ruin the novel for me, still a tremendous work, but it kept it from being my favorite Parker.

Neth said...

I can see that, and I got at it in my review - only in a different way. I think Parker tried to walk that fine line between letting you into the characters' heads and keeping their ultimate motivations and plans a mystery.


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