Genre fantasy is often a literature of war, or ends up that way: a skirmish becomes a battle, and a quest becomes a campaign. It is less frequently a literature about the consequences of war in any sustained sense, either for individuals or for society. Armed conflict, it seems, is a powerful narrative attractor—to take a recent example, even Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains (2008), which for much of its length is squarely and perceptively about one Ringil Eskiath, a veteran out of place in a post-war society, ends with the suggestion that a greater fight is looming. That KJ Parker's latest novel is a fantasy about war that does not feature many traditional battles—there's one big set-piece flashback, but that's about it—is therefore something to note. That despite this apparent limitation The Company manages to convey with some force the destructively totalizing power of its subject is, I think, something to praise.
Like The Steel Remains, Parker's novel is focused on a cadre of veterans, five remarkable men from the same unremarkable region—Faralia is, as one of them puts it, "a place to have come from, a place to get away from" (p. 42). They come as a bundle deal from the start: they train together as the Faralian Gang, then fight together for a decade as linebreakers, charged with running in front of the body of the army and disrupting enemy pikemen. They became world record holders, surviving so many more engagements than the average that you would be forgiven for thinking their luck supernatural, except that their world does not seem to be one that supports magic, or interventionist gods. (Not that we find out much about the wider world; in fact, it's largely irrelevant to the book, such that we never, for instance, find out exactly who they were fighting against, or indeed fighting for other than "the commonwealth.") When the war was done, four of them came home, but drifted apart, telling themselves they'd only had the war in common. They returned to old lives or established new ones: they now work as a farmer, a shopkeeper, a tanner, and a fencing instructor. The fifth, Teuche Kunessin, stayed in the army and eventually made general. As the book opens he, too, has retired, and is coming home—but not to stay. (There was a sixth man in the company, but he died in the war.) Kunessin has a plan, and it involves a neglected island called Sphoe:
"It's a wonderful place, Aidi. Nobody lives there, it's twenty square miles of good deep soil sheltered by a mountain range, with a big fat river running straight through the middle. [. . .] There's deer, and wild pigs, bloody great birds living in the woods that'd feed a family for a week, and it's an island, so of course there's all the fish you could ever want, and there's a cove on the north shore where turtles come up twice a year . . ."
Aidi was looking at him, his head a little on one side, like a puzzled dog. "That's wonderful, Teuche, and I'm very happy for you, but what's this got to do with us?"
Kunessin could see in his face that he'd already guessed the answer. "I want us to go there," he said. "You, me, Kudei, all of us. Just take it for own and live there, like we used to talk about." (p. 21)
Kunessin's problem, then, is that he finds himself in something like the inverse of Ringil Eskiath's situation. It's not that the society he has helped to save is rejecting him, it's that he's rejecting the society he helped to save. And where Ringil’s frustration with his situation manifests as blunt passion, Kunessin’s is focused into a plan. He is at times a coldly cerebral protagonist, certainly an eminently practical one. Though Kunessin insists that he's not trying to establish "Zeuxis' ideal republic" (p. 70), it's evident that a great deal of thought, not to mention a great deal of money, has gone into Kunessin's plans for Sphoe. At the same time, it's hard not to detect a certain amount of yearning for what will, he convinces his friends, be a quasi-libertarian utopia, free from (among other things) government oversight and unwelcome taxes.
This promise of Sphoe is very carefully and effectively generated. It is also a trap. The Company is not a story about escaping to a new society; it is a story about how impossible such escape is.
It's perhaps worth talking a little about how Parker establishes this trap, since her style is for the most part not one that engenders closeness. Indeed, it is something she often seems to consciously eschew. This quote, which describes a young Kunessin's first encounter with the dead, after a battle on his farm, is typical in its dry detachment:
The man's eyes were wide open—he had a rather gormless expression [. . .] There was another gash on his knee. His right hand was still clutching a long wooden pole, splintered in the middle. The other four men were face down, lying in patches of brown, sticky blood. Teuche noticed that the soles of their boots were worn almost through. A little further on, he saw a dead horse, with a man's body trapped under it. There was something very wrong about it, but it took him quite some time to realise that the body had no head. He looked round for it but he couldn't see it anywhere. (pp. 56-7)
It’s almost purely factual. The image is of Kunessin standing staring at the dead rider, trying to work out what’s "very wrong" about it, but we are left to infer how strongly that affects him; we are not invited to share his experience. Such careful management of point of view is typical of The Company; all of it is told in third-person narration, and most of the characters get a turn as the nominal viewpoint, but sometimes we are given access to a character’s every thought, sometimes we are only allowed to watch their actions from a distance, and sometimes we are tricked into thinking we’re seeing from one character’s point of view, only for it to be revealed as another’s. There is, of course, a trade-off being made, in that while it’s a style well-suited to preparing the ground for a shift in emphasis, it means that it takes longer than it otherwise would for the five men of the company to become distinct individuals.
In other ways, clues as to the book’s true subject are embedded in the style from the start. Most notably, all the men have a habit of thinking of their interactions in military terms; one decides to "retreat to prepared positions" (p. 14) in a conversation with his wife, another engages in a "flanking move" (p. 79) and later concludes that the time has come to "commit his reserve" (p. 224). This is fine as far as it goes, but not terribly nuanced—although that may be deliberate. For all her pared-down directness, certainly elsewhere Parker is capable of finding images that are both striking and appropriate to her medieval Europe-ish setting, such as a lantern "scattering light like a duke throwing coins into a crowd" (p. 103), or one character watching a "bewildered frown spread across [another's] face like the smoke from burning stubble" (p. 147), suggesting that her effects, even the blunt ones, are indeed deliberately chosen. (Of course, there are also a few bewildering modernisms sprinkled through the text—most egregiously "come to Daddy" [p. 103]).
Once on Sphoe, however, Parker’s tactics begin to pay off. The natural obstacles and trials you might expect a colony start-up to face ultimately lead to a change in the nature of the project. When the "enlisted men" (also referred to as "servants") acquire more bargaining chips than Kunessin had counted on, they force the creation of a second kind of company—a business partnership—and a sort of democracy of necessity. At the same time, the nagging uncertainties engendered by the selectively close narration are developed into more specific concerns, about Kunessin’s true motivations and those of his comrades (such as why they followed him so willingly); and flashbacks that explore the role that the sixth member of the company played in the group dynamic start to explain why it seems to teeter on the edge of dysfunctionality now. All of this builds, and builds: there is an increasing sense, through the second half of the book, that The Company will depend very much on its ending for its success or failure.
What can be said of the ending is that it succeeds in what I think it sets out to do. The resolution of The Company is all broken contracts and betrayal: betrayal of the company, betrayal by the company of each other and, most boldly, deliberate betrayal of the reader by Parker. By the end of the book, there is very little that is sympathetic for a reader to hold on to, and even if you divine the direction in which events are heading the completeness with which Parker denies her readers any sense of justice is startling. The earlier assertions of the Faralian Gang's in-the-face-of-the-world togetherness—"the six of us were the whole world" (p. 50)—turn out to be evidence of a sort of toxic codependence, an inability on the part of these men to find somewhere to live in the world because of what they carry inside them, and what the war has shaped them into. In a minor but telling detail, Zeuxis is revealed to be a military strategist as well as a proposer of utopian societies; and it becomes increasingly clear that the differences between the military company that bound the gang in the war and the financial company that binds them now make, in the end, no difference. The inhibiting, corrupting nature of the contract is the same. There is no peace, for these men, nor is there a new war for them to fight (which might save them).
The most striking act of betrayal appears at first to be a piece of starkly sexist writing, in which women are punished and men are spared for no reason beyond their narrative prominence. But I wonder about it. Elsewhere in the book, Parker makes clear that she understands the sexism of the society she’s writing about (and much more could be said about the book’s female characters than I have said here), so even at first glance, it looks odd; and at second glance, in light of the book’s very end, which elevates the company’s tragic flaws to a literally mythic stage, it starts to look like a clue. The sense of psychic damage to the gang only becomes more intense as the book goes on, but the sense of physical damage, the idea that war posed any real threat to them, attenuates. It could be, I think, that those jokes about the lucky Faralian Gang are more than jokes. If I’m right, it’s a move that completes Parker's betrayal of her readers, by stripping characters we have invested in of even their wartime heroism. It is certainly a challenge to the reader: if wartime heroism is this meaningless, do you want to read about it?
It's perhaps true that some of Parker's larger-scale narrative moves are too crude, in the same way that her use of military language to show thought shaped by military life is too crude. One scene, which avoids names while describing the moment in which one of the company betrays the others, is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is, or deliberately tips its hand; either way the identity of the traitor, and thus something about the book’s ultimate destination, is apparent earlier than is optimal. But as I've already indicated, I think there’s a fair bit of juice in The Company anyway; and, after all, the Faralian Gang aren’t stupid, though their intelligence and competence help them little in the end. It's part of their tragedy. They know what war has done to them; so maybe it’s only fitting that when we close The Company, we know what it's done to us.