The Folding Knife by K J Parker

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The Folding Knife by K J Parker

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Simon Regan
Reviewed by Simon Regan
Summary: Blending gritty realism with cynical wit, and political intrigue with her signature military nous, K.J. Parker’s latest fantasy epic displays superb characterisation in her most vivid and plausible fantasy world to date. Highly recommended to all readers – though the ending may disappoint those unfamiliar with Parker’s brutal style.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 528 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-1841495125

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Bassianus Arcadius Severus – call him Basso – is a man of many talents. All but guaranteed a life of ease as his birthright, he instead finds himself driven to excel, first as an executive trustee in his father’s bank, and then in the realm of politics. His rise to the zenith of public life is meteoric, fuelled by ambition, ruthlessness, and above all his ability to turn any defeat into a resounding victory. But with the Republic – and Basso’s own position and even life – under threat from enemies old and new, will his fall prove equally thunderous? Welcome to The Folding Knife, the latest fantasy epic from K.J. Parker.

In an interview prior to the publication of The Folding Knife, K.J. Parker stated of the project that she wanted to challenge her own comfort zone and produce a work the thought of writing which scared me half to death. Long-term fans will be relieved to hear that the product is still cynical, gritty, realistic fantasy of the sort Parker has done so well before – only, if possible, more so. The novel takes place in the same immaculately constructed world as her Engineer trilogy – it’s indicated that the Vesani occupy the previously mysterious continent from which the Mezentines originated.

Like much of Parker’s work, The Folding Knife occupies that lightly trodden region of the fantasy genre best described as ‘historical fantasy’, eschewing magic and other fantastic elements in favour of period drama transported into an alternate world. The Vesani Republic itself is strongly reminiscent of the medieval Venetian Republic of our history (with a soupcon of Republican Rome), and it’s easy to see in the irredentist Eastern Empire shades of the historical Byzantines.

Each of Parker’s novels is rooted in a specific profession – bow-maker, fencer, blacksmith, engineer, and now financier and career politician. The astonishing detail with which her protagonists practice their craft supports her claim that she does all her own ‘stunts’, and it’s clear that the same amount of research and preparation has gone into creating the labyrinthine political and personal intrigue of the world Basso inhabits. The serpentine double-dealing and ruthless economic warfare of the novel remain lucid despite the considerable complexity Parker pours into them, and are so well written that one finds oneself cheering for Basso even during his most despicable victories due to the sheer audacity of his schemes.

Parker’s characterisation in The Folding Knife is as superb as ever – although the novel doesn’t boast as large a cast as the Engineer trilogy (focusing on only about six main characters), it packs as much character development into a single volume as the Engineer saga did in three. Basso’s nephew Bassiano is probably the most sympathetic character in the novel – which will alert Parker fans that one shouldn't grow too attached to him. Basso’s supporting cast is very strong, with his mentor Antigonus the most intelligently drawn, and Parker’s ability to mirror Basso’s own conflicted feelings towards his sister by shifting her from victim to villain and back again is spectacular.

The author’s prose style is equally outstanding, balancing hard-edged realism with a clever wit and faultless pace. It is a tribute to the author’s skills as a wordsmith that the most exciting sections of The Folding Knife are not the reports from the front in the Republic’s foreign wars, but the logistical battles Basso faces to keep his dreams of empire afloat, and the domestic political manoeuvring in which he must engage to retain power.

My only note of caution regarding the novel is as follows – those not familiar with Parker’s style are unlikely to be happy with the novel’s denouement. In interview, Parker has said of her characters Mostly I torture them, like a spoilt child breaking her toys just because she can. The Folding Knife is no exception to this rule – however, Basso is perhaps her most resilient protagonist to date, and there is a real sense of a struggle taking place between the author and her creation. The story of The Folding Knife is presented through a framing device which makes it clear that Basso will eventually meet his downfall, cleverly changing the emphasis in the reader’s mind from ‘can he be defeated?’ to ‘is this when it all goes wrong?’ We thrill when Parker’s protagonist overcomes his foes precisely because we know that fate is against him.

Overall K J Parker's The Folding Knife comes highly recommended to all readers – the world the Vesani Republic occupies is perhaps her most vivid and plausible to date, whilst the protagonists excel as examples of well-rounded characterisation and the prose style remains as cleverly cynical and flawlessly researched as ever. Those new to Parker’s body of work may be angered or disappointed by an ending which amplifies her brutal narrative style to the nth power, but ultimately it’s the only proper way for Basso’s story to end, and in full context provides a stunning conclusion to her most triumphant work yet.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestions: The Company by K J Parker, The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt.

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