Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Sharps by K.J. Parker

Sharps is the latest standalone novel from author K.J. Parker, a critically successful, but perhaps not as well-known commercially fantasy author. I’d never heard of Parker until I got a little deeper into the SFF community, where I started hearing the name repeated again and again from other major bloggers, like Justin Landon over at Staffer’s Book Review and Jared Shurin at Pornokitsch. It seems like Parker is just on the verge of becoming an enormous success – an author that’s always been a well-known secret within genre circles, but just not quite there when it comes to the average punter in the bookshop.

Parker writes what you could perhaps term “fantastical histories”. The worlds Parker writes in are 100% fantasy creations, but they don’t tend to involve much (if any) magic or fantastical creatures – rather, Parker uses these worlds to explore ideas and topics that are parallel with our own current affairs. The novels explore the fundamental workings of a range of topics, from politics to economics; engineering to individual power and the nature of good and evil. But although Parker explores these ideas on societal levels, s/he uses individuals to tell the stories. These may be tales with broad-ranging ideas, but the characters are at the centre. And going by Sharps, they’re just damn good stories.

Sharps is the story of two countries: Scheria and Permia. They have long been at war, but for the first time in a rather bloody forty years a truce has finally been called. They are not at peace yet, though. Talks are in place and a diplomatic mission is sent to Permia by the Scherians. For both countries share one central interest – fencing. Scheria puts together a team of its best fencers to tour Permia, with the mission supposedly being to try and unite both countries with this shared interest. A force of goodwill. But things really are not quite that simple.

With Sharps, K.J. Parker takes a sometimes serious and often satirical look at warmongering, organised sporting events and the art of diplomacy. The novel follows almost exclusively the group of fencers sent into Permia, following the points of view of each one at different points. There is the most central of these, Giraut Bryennius, a young man who is forced at pain of death to go with the party into Permia. Addo Carnufex is the son of General Carnufex, Scheria’s most renowned commander (and perhaps throughout the world), Iseutz Bringas – the only female member of the team, Jilem Phrantzes – a former champion and the team’s administrator, and finally, Suidas Deutzel, the Scherian fencing champion – and a real scene-stealer throughout the novel.

Through the eyes of these central characters, we see the foreign country of Permia, and Parker very much limits us to seeing only what the characters do – a country where something isn’t quite right. Nothing seems to go quite to plan and there is clearly more to their diplomatic mission than they are being told. Parker manages to create a tense atmosphere through this sense of just never knowing what’s really going on. The novel twists and turns, Parker only ever showing us what s/he needs us to know, until everything becomes so convoluted and tangled up that it becomes difficult to see where it’s going. But then, right in the final 50 pages, Parker unravels the knot in an ingenious piece of plot structuring, and everything becomes clear.

There were areas, particularly in the middle of the novel, where I struggled. Mainly this was through frustration at misunderstanding the situation, but Parker does have a knack for gauging the reader – the characters are always frustrated with you. What kept me reading was Parker’s outstanding dialogue. Much of the novel’s structure – it’s worldbuilding, plotting, foreshadowing – all come from the dialogue. Parker shies away from copious description, and instead opts to allow the characters to do the telling. And it’s hilarious. I haven’t laughed so much at a novel since some of the older Discworld novels. It’s biting and satirical, but always incredibly funny.

Sharps is like a medieval/early-modern roadtrip through a war-torn, primitive country, with (of all things) a sports team at the centre. It’s not the easiest novel to read, and at times it can become quite dense (despite its average length) with worldbuilding and intrigue which doesn’t always make sense until the bigger picture is revealed. But in that lies Parker’s strength – intrigue. This is an author that is not afraid to write in a structure that only ever reveals what s/he wants you to know. It’s a fun, satirical, darkly funny and at times, thought-provoking read – and I’d have to agree that although there may be better Parker novels out there, it’s only a matter of time until K.J. Parker gets the recognition s/he deserves. 

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