The Two of Swords by K J Parker

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The Two of Swords by K J Parker

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Wilson
Reviewed by Ruth Wilson
Summary: This book is slow, wandering, frustratingly unclear and, at times, long winded. At the same time, the characters are interesting and well written and you are left wanting to know more, to understand it all and to see a resolution. This is not an easy book to read but it is worth the effort.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: October 2017
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-0356506760

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This is a difficult book to review, to be honest, because I am still not sure if I liked it. It is the first book of a trilogy so I expected that a lot of it would be to set the scene and the characters but this doesn't really happen, we are thrown in at the deep end. The novel is set during a long standing war between east and west that has been going on for so long no-one is really sure why they are fighting. Currently in command are the Belot brothers, each one a military genius and each one fighting for the opposing side, there is also the guild of craftsmen whose purpose we never fully know and their role is to manipulate and interfere to serve their own interests.

The book is very episodic; it jumps from character to character and as soon as you finally figure out the plot concerning one individual you jump to another character, in another location, fighting for another side, never too sure where you are or what is going on. I was left with the constant feeling that I had missed something, and it is hard to get a grip on the geography when you keep jumping around and no matter where you are you are in the story the commander is a Belot brother.

The book begins in a small town with a group of young men who have been conscripted and are setting off to war; and we are introduced to our first two characters, Teucer and Musen. It doesn't help that this part of the story really dragged, the premise of the trilogy is that it is told through the eyes of the soldiers as well as those in power, but the role of the soldier was simply to shuffle around without knowing what is going on, so not much happens. It should give us time to get a sense of the war at large, but no one knows anything, and to get a sense of the geography of the world, but they get lost so no help there. It is made worse by the fact that Teucer whinges incessantly and Musen is a thoroughly unpleasant man so there is not much incentive to keep reading. I didn't enjoy this part of the book at all; it didn't inspire me to keep reading and I constantly felt like there should be more to the story that I was simply missing. Perhaps that was the point.

Next we move on to meet Telamon who is both politically active and a craftsman so is much more interesting from the beginning. The story really picks up pace from this point and it was worth sticking with the story to meet some of the other characters, everyone from this point has history either in politics or as a craftsman so the things move with more purpose and speed. The trouble is that the guild of craftsmen is a shadowy organisation where people only know their own part and no one is quite sure who else is a craftsman and what their part is so it is a little like feeling around in the dark. People our characters interact with are often referred to as a suit from a religious pack of cards that is never fully explained and several times someone is given a title from a particular suit of cards only for our character to ponder that this suit doesn't actually exist. Again, I felt like I was missing something, it felt like hard work to keep track of the plot at times because even the characters we are following do not know the plot. Again, maybe that is the point.

As the story really builds up, we finally get to meet the Belot brothers. These two characters are beautifully written, each know the other so well they can anticipate each move and counter move and decision based on that counter move so are both making choices of attack based on numerous movements none of which have actually happened but both brothers know will happen. We get to know both brothers and they are both likable and clever but both want to beat the other and are using the war and the great army at their disposal to end what is basically a brothers quarrel. Thousands die in their quest to destroy each other, and yet they are both sympathetic characters and amazingly, as a reader, you are inclined to support them. Ultimately, I assume one must win and beat the other but I find myself hoping for a twist in the future to allow them both to escape alive.

This may seem like a thoroughly negative review but bizarrely I did enjoy the book overall, and I would read the other two books in the trilogy, though I expect I would find them equally frustrating. I partly suspect that we are meant to find it wandering, frustrating, and unclear as war tends to be wandering, unclear, and frustratingly wasteful but perhaps, again, I have missed something. Would I recommend you read it? A resounding yes, do read it because it has some wonderful characters and some beautiful moments, and perhaps all will become clear in the next book. Alternatively, you could try reading The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso.

Buy The Two of Swords by K J Parker at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Two of Swords by K J Parker at

Buy The Two of Swords by K J Parker at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Two of Swords by K J Parker at


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Nicky McLean said:

Dear Ms Wilson, In your review shown on there is a mistype: the character's name is Musen, not "Munsen" [Now corrected - thank you for pointing htis out. Editor]

I agree with the "frustatingly unclear" though in the good old days, peasant communities would have little sense of geography beyond a day or so's walk of home other than vagueness. I was eventually provoked enough to try and draw a diagram to help keep clear who and what was "East" and who "West" and at the same time found what seemed to be mistakes of continuity. Not just vagueness over which Forza was being talked about which seems to be deliberate, but, for example Musen suffers a broken left arm, by which he is shackled, and is asked to draw but says that he is right-handed, presumably meaning that he can't draw with one arm shackled except that his right hand isn't. Or perhaps he means that he needs his left hand to support the work, or, perhaps he means that while shackled he is disinclined to do any drawing, so meet me halfway. All these are possible, with a little stretching, and each would reveal a part of the characterisation but, in different shades.

And I have no idea of the card games being discussed, nor the presence or otherwise of certain cards. Perhaps I should memorise the Tarot deck, as this (I discover) does have a Two of Swords, and with interpretation that might be relevant.

As for the historical parallel, the scattering of Greek-style names and references suggests to me the Byzantine empire, wherein, politics was ... Byzantine in its complexity and seemed mad to outsiders.

Anyway, I'm off to the Lower Hutt libry to seek out the third book.

Happy reading, Nicky McLean.