The Company by K J Parker

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The Company by K J Parker

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Five soldiers leave their various stages of retirement and form a colony on an uninhabited island. The land, the people, and the book – none are quite as they seem, as this slow-burner is a character piece with some drama, and a lightly worn fantasy side, but could have been crisper.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-1841495101

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After a lengthy war, five soldiers are left, no longer in the one and same company but in varying stages in their new careers, or practically retired. One of them, the most militaristic, who stayed on and became General, has a seemingly bizarre plan – the five should find wives and servants, and head off to an island he knows about, where a colony can be formed.

It's not some strange socialist experiment, and he seems to have no particular strategy in suggesting the plan, but to the leftovers of the company, who have been through thick and thin together, it might as well be as if he ordered them. They follow him there and tackle the process of living off the land, with only the occasional boat to maintain contact with other sources of necessities.

But, wouldn't you just know it? The island is not quite what they might have been expecting. The intent of the General might not be what they thought, either; and practically all of them have some secret from their past or their present behaviour, that might have some bearing on what's to come.

I should focus first on the fact this is a lightly-worn fantasy book. The war seems to have spread across a multi-faceted field of battle – the desert, the seas, the mountains – but we're not focussed on one side against the other, however absorbing the flashbacks might get. The period seems to be quite a mediaeval one – chainmail, trebuchets, crossbows and so on are the weapons and armour of choice. Our heroes were part of a particular unit involved in pike warfare, and have survived a ridiculously impressive amount of campaigns.

Beyond the strange people and place-names, there is nothing else that might suggest this is a fantasy book. Instead what we have is much more a measured character piece, with the five warriors and their personalities to the fore. All five have been tempered by the wars, and treat everything with the mind of a combative tactician – marriage, conversations and more.

The five don't exactly have a lot of conflict amongst themselves – there is a sense the five will always stutter to an agreeable conclusion, but I can't say the same about the book. It soon becomes apparent the colony won't be set up with any pace – there is a quarter of the book gone before the colonists land ashore. Before then, if it weren't for the always more-than competent turns of phrase used by K J Parker, I might almost suggest she is giving us her thinkings aloud – she seems to have brought everything to bear in putting herself in the position of the company, and given us everything as a result in an inevitably near-random order.

Beyond that there is the sense the flashbacks to the wars could have been different. We never learn exactly who was battling whom, or over what, and the scenes of the war are all disjointed, and so we get a wishy-washy look at the characters' pasts. While they lead us into different aspects of what we might think might happen on the island quite well, they do not build to a coherent story, or leave us particular clues. The drifts back in time seem a wasted opportunity, then, which only make the more prolonged and exciting times when we can concentrate on the colony all the more noticeable.

Those were more impressive to me – and there were certainly a couple of good cliff-hanging moments, and twists and turns to prove this remains an easily readable book. It again shows an author who has sat and at great length created a complex drama with a great deal of psychological truth, and I liked the book very much when she was able to abandon us with her colony, and all the hardships they are forced to face – or perhaps bring upon themselves.

It was just regrettable, with 430pp of below-average print size, that the book did include as many elements to bolster the characterisation and configure into the greater scheme of things. I was often aware the blurb was better at providing a greater sense of urgent mystery than the book ever achieved. The Company is a book I would recommend to those not particularly fans of genre writing, which is something I enjoy doing when the material deserves it, but I would temper that recommendation with the feeling that the book remains a little woolly at times, and could have had a crisper, more accessible mystery at its core.

I am grateful for the review copy from Orbit. We also have a review of The Two of Swords by K J Parker.

Hunter's Run by George R R Martin, Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abraham has a similar psychological genre spirit, again featuring fully realised people in the almost near-alien territory.

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