The last war between the neighboring countries of Permia and Scheria ended when Scheria’s greatest general redirected the course of a number of rivers and flooded one of the enemy’s cities, thereby killing tens of thousands of people and gaining the charming nickname “the Irrigator.” Some years later, as K.J. Parker’s newest novel Sharpsstarts off, the tension between the two enemies shows signs of thawing, so much so that there’s talk of sending a mission of goodwill across the Demilitarized Zone: a small team of Scherian fencers will embark on a tour of Permia, signaling the possible start of an era of rapprochement.
Fencing is, after all, the most popular sport in the area. Showing the common folks that “hey, we’re really not so different after all” will go a long way towards creating lasting peace and mutually beneficial trade between the former enemy nations. It’s a huge responsibility for the members of the fencing team, because even a small cultural misstep could lead to a major diplomatic incident. Of course, some of the fencers didn’t exactly volunteer for their new roles, making the entire tour a highly uncomfortable affair….
If you’re not familiar with the author yet: K.J. Parker has quietly been releasing a number of great fantasy novels since the mid nineties—“quietly” because no one seems to know who the author is. We don’t even know the author’s gender for sure. There’s a certain novelty to this mystery, and people have had fun trying to guess who Parker is for years, but by now it’s clear that all of this is secondary to the fact that, whoever he or she may be, this is one of the genre’s most talented authors. As tantalizing as the mystery of the author’s identity is, it has to take a backseat to the sheer quality of the novels. And the good news is that, if you’re new to K.J. Parker, Sharps is as good a place as any to get started.
The opening paragraphs of this review may be a bit deceptive, because they make the novel sound like a story that focuses on nations and major events rather than on characters. It isn’t. Sharps is first and foremost the story of the handful of people who are sent across the border to try and forge a new bond between former enemies. K.J. Parker is one of those authors who can make a character real to the reader in just a few paragraphs. The members of the fencing team very quickly turn into fascinating individuals with complex backgrounds and motivations.
But, then again, it is a story of nations too. Permia and Scheria both used to be parts of larger empires, and their histories are an important part of Sharps, as is the complex web of economics and politics that shapes them to this day. The novel’s setting is similar to the ones seen in other K.J. Parker books: a parallel-history version of Europe that’s heavily influenced by (and was once split between) the fantasy equivalents of Rome and Athens. Names often sound vaguely Latin, Greek, or a number of other European languages other than, oddly maybe, English. The jury’s still out on whether Parker’s books are all set in the same universe: the author didn’t answer conclusively in a recent mini-interview, but it wouldn’t make a big difference either way.
One of the many strange contrasts that makes this novel work is that it feels like an almost intimate, character-driven story that at the same time deals with major, macro-historical events. Or as the author said years ago, during another rare interview and about a different novel, “Basically, it’s a love story; which is why tens of thousands die, cities are torched, nations overthrown and everybody betrays everybody else at least once.” Sharps isn’t a love story (well, not really, at least) and most of the city-torching and nation-overthrowing happened in the past, but it has that same, strange tension.
If all of this sounds like too much complexity to be enjoyable, rest assured: Sharps is an incredibly smooth read. Parker introduces characters quickly and efficiently, often managing to combine characterization with elements of the plot and the setting into, no, not an expository paragraph, but a simple, entertaining conversation. The dialogues—oh, the dialogues. K.J. Parker writes some of the best dialogue in the genre. It’s smooth, fast-paced, and full of the author’s characteristically dry wit. It’s frequently hilarious. When K.J. Parker’s characters speak, the novel simply sparkles.
This is one of those books that’ll suck you in from the very beginning. Parker quickly sets up the situation with a series of fairly short vignettes, introducing the handful of main characters, bringing them together and sending them off on their journey. While those scenes are often comical in tone, they’re deadly serious, too. Before you know it, you’re in the thick of the action, bouncing along in a rickety coach with the tense, constantly bickering fencers, deep in what was just recently enemy territory. As the plot develops further, it quickly becomes clear that not everything is as it seems and that most of the characters have no idea what’s really going on. The plot progresses like a whirlwind, dragging you along, but at the same time Parker methodically adds layers to the characters and the novel’s surprisingly subtle imagery.
Despite the breezy tone of most of this novel, there’s a lot of emotion, too. Sharps is a study of contrasts: it shows a surface of fun and adventure, but with a foundation of emotional and intellectual depth. The prose is so light and smooth that the pages practically turn themselves, but it also uses a few recurring images and metaphors to great effect. The descriptions of the fencing matches and fights are fantastic, but it’s their various implications that truly propel the plot. Sharps is equal parts personal and political, emotion and reason, humor and tragedy. It’s also simply one of the most captivating fantasy novels I’ve read all year. (I often reread the first fifty or so pages of a novel right after finishing it, just to see how my perception has changed knowing the end of the story. In the case of Sharps, I ended up reading right through the entire thing again. Impossible to put down even on a second reading — that’s the sign of a great novel.)
Early in the novel, someone muses that “a wise man once described violence as just another form of communication, and another wise man called fencing a conversation in steel.” In typical K.J. Parker fashion, that first “wise man” was actually named Arthur Wise, but be that as it may, a “conversation in steel” is a perfect way to sum up the spinning set of contradictions that make Sharps such a brilliant piece of genre writing. If you only read one fantasy novel this year, make it this one.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on July 11th, 2012.