K.J. Parker appears to be in a very prolific period in his career right now. In addition to the ongoing serial novel The Two of Swords (my review), which just had its sixth monthly installment published in July, and last year’s short fiction/essay collection Academic Exercises, we are now treated to Savages, a brand new full length novel. (Plus, come October, a new novella over on Tor.com!)
Maybe it’s the recent unveiling of his true identity that spurred all this activity? Whatever’s the cause, you’ll never hear me complain about more K.J. Parker on the shelves.
The setting for Savages, as for most of Parker’s output to date, is once again a vaguely recognizable (but really different) parallel of Europe during and after the breakup of the Roman Empire: there are Western and Eastern Empires, one with vaguely Roman-sounding names and one with kinda-Greek-sounding names, as well as some other parallels to countries and regions in historical central Europe. Fans of the author will catch references to, among others, Permia and Scheria, two countries that have frequently been featured in Parker’s fiction.
(The difference with the works of someone like Guy Gavriel Kay is that Parker, as far as I can tell from my very fuzzy knowledge of that period, rarely if ever refers to actual historical events and people. He mainly uses this setting as a nice, dynamic place to develop his wonderful plots and characters. By contrast, with Kay you can usually tell that character X is actually this or that king or poet or general with the serial numbers removed, and if you’re not careful you’ll run into major plot spoilers when you look up the real life history the novels are based on.)
In Savages, we actually get a look at some of the nomadic tribes that wander the edges of the Eastern empire. A brilliant general named Calojan has convinced the Aram Cosseilhatz, one of five nomadic clans, to fight on behalf of the Empire. The Cosseilhatz horse archers are so fearsome that they often make the difference in the ongoing wars and battles.
Savages features a relatively large cast of main characters who take turns as the point of view for this meandering story. In addition to the aforementioned Calojan, the main players are Aimeric, a pacifist student who inherits his father’s faltering arms business, and a (for most of the novel) nameless man whose family is murdered in the opening chapter and who goes on to relentlessly reinvent himself as the story progresses. Further points of view are provided by the young prince of the Aram Cosseilhatz, a counterfeiter, and an expert art/manuscript forger.
Of these characters, my favorite was easily Aimeric, the pacifist student turned arms manufacturer who ends up playing a vital role in the ongoing military campaigns by consistently coming up with creative ways to deliver huge amounts of weaponry to Calojan’s armies. He has the same sort of manic “just keep going” forward momentum as Miles Vorkosigan, playing his new role as a hyper-entrepreneurial weapons merchant with desperate gusto.
“Playing a role” is actually a key concept in Savages: one of the novel’s recurring themes is reinventing oneself. The nameless chieftain has a “fake it till you make it” approach to employment: he basically says yes to any job he’s offered, claiming (entirely fictional) previous experience. Aimeric’s a pacifist playing at being an arms manufacturer. Both of them forge a new life, just like the counterfeiter makes fake money and the forger makes fake manuscripts. It’s all these forgeries and phony identities that somehow drive the plot.
Take for example this telling quote: “So many people these days have a morbid obsession with the truth. Nine times out of ten no good comes of it.” This, by the way, is uttered while two characters discuss the forgery of a prophecy. That original prophecy turns out to be a forgery too, making it, yes, a forgery of a forgery. The entire project is meant to introduce retconned false prophecies into the document—prophecies that have already come true, so people will believe the rest of the fake predictions will come true too. Ah, the tangled web we weave…
Other fun examples: Aimeric rebuys his old family’s house, which was sold off to repay debts his father incurred. He traces down as much of the sold-off furniture as he can find, faithfully recreating the house he grew up in and calling it “an authentic forgery of the original.” And finally, there’s a hilarious section where (and I’m paraphrasing here because I somehow can’t find it in my copy right now) the counterfeiter says something to the effect of “If we do it, it’s called forgery, but if the government does it, it’s quantitative easing.” (This is also, as far as I remember, the first time I’ve seen the term quantitative easing in a fantasy novel.)
Despite all these clever K.J. Parker hijinx, and the recognizably wonderful dialogues (seriously, Parker writes better dialogue than 99% of the field), and the many, exquisitely detailed battle scenes, Savages is a bit of a letdown in some ways. There’s some minor issues, mainly the occasional clumsy plotting: one character sneaks into a building to find a place to sleep and just happens to overhear others plotting—a coincidence that stretches belief to the breaking point.
More importantly, though, the novel lacks a sense of purpose. As fun as the story is, it never feels as if it’s moving towards any kind of resolution. There’s no drive. We follow very fascinating characters interacting, evolving, leading their very different lives, but taken as a whole, the novel somehow lacks tension.
Don’t get me wrong, Savages is not boring—on the contrary even—but it’s missing an antagonist, a goal, a destination, a motivation. The overarching plot mainly takes place on the macro level, with the uncomfortable relationship between the Empire and the titular “savages” its main focus, but the individual stories within that larger plot meander a bit much.
Regardless, a new K.J. Parker is always cause for celebration. Looking back at the author’s biography to date, I don’t think Savages will be as highly regarded as some earlier masterpieces like Sharps (my review) or The Folding Knife, but it’s still an entertaining work by a master of the craft.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on July 31st, 2015.