Bassianus Arcadius Severus, known as Basso to his few friends, is, by his own account, ugly and stupid. Readers of K.J. Parker's The Folding Knife had better take that account with a pinch of salt. Basso's life story—arranged marriage, employment in a bank, children, adultery, murder, political supremacy, legal reform, and eventual demission—whose telling makes up the substance of Parker's latest novel, is not the story of a fool. Nor is it the tale of an opportunist, though Basso certainly has a knack for making the most of random chance. "I think," remarks another character, midway through the book, "that if someone tried to rob you in the street, you'd pick his pocket, sell him a better knife and probably offer him a job as a tax collector." "I choose to take that as a compliment," replies Basso. (p. 353) Basso is notorious for his luck. Though he suffers his share of misfortune, disaster, and inconvenience, somehow it all turns out for the best, for Basso if not for those close to him. It could be argued that Basso's luck is preternatural: it could even be argued that the eponymous knife—a gift from his mother—bestows some arcane protection, or glamor, or fortune upon the bearer. The first scene of The Folding Knife recounts Basso's loss of that knife. The rest of the novel could be read as an illustration of why losing the knife matters so much to him.
Parker, lauded as "one of fantasy's premier voices" (SFX), seems to be moving away from the multi-volume epics of yesteryear (the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies) and into single-novel territory with 2009's The Company and now with The Folding Knife. Much of the novel focuses on the military and economic expansion of the Vesani Republic, which bears more than a passing resemblance to classical Rome, both culturally and socially. Its ancient foe, the Eastern Empire, is nearly a millennium past its prime and seems quiescent. The Republic's nearer neighbor, the Mavortine Confederacy—a large barren island that's home to nineteen tribes, some of them nomadic, very loosely allied by a nebulous peace treaty cobbled together several generations ago—has been thoroughly subjugated. It is notable mostly as the origin of trade goods: these goods include several of the primary characters, who've come to the Republic as slaves.
Basso, essentially a solitary man, is revealed by his interactions with those who matter to him. There's his estranged sister, the tragically misnamed Tranquillina, and her son Bassano, handsome and earnest and noble, who's almost too good to be true. There is Aelius, a career soldier born in the Mavortine Confederacy who is apparently all too happy to make war against it. There is Antigonus, the slave who teaches Basso the basics of economics. There is Basso's first wife, who meets a grisly fate, and her successor, another Mavortine (though not a slave). Each of these individuals teaches Basso something important about life, and about himself: each helps define his limiting flaws. With a tagline to the effect that "Even great men make mistakes" and back cover copy insisting that Basso has only ever made one mistake, it's inevitable that the reader will be watching out for that single terminal error. The problem is that Basso doesn’t always recognize his mistakes: the things that matter, that change the world, may well seem insignificant at the time. For what it's worth, I'm not convinced that the most significant of his mistakes involves use of the eponymous knife. The murder that Basso commits does change his life, and his world, in drastic ways: but I wonder if there's some authorial sleight-of-hand going on, if we're being distracted from an oversight that, because it's unrecognized, has even greater effects.
The last quarter of the novel clearly depicts a man who's past his peak: Basso freely admits to not having thought of an obvious solution to a politically-embarrassing family problem; he fails to question the oddly impecunious estate of a fallen soldier; he discovers treachery rather closer to home than he has expected. In the end, though, he finds a certain freedom, which I am convinced will give him plenty of opportunity to examine every interaction that's brought him to the point—the very first scene in the novel—where he loses the knife. The Folding Knife feels rather claustrophobic, as though the author hasn't sufficient space to explore the manifold convolutions of the plot. The finale, in particular, seems somewhat hasty, though the facts and clues are all there—have been there from the very first chapter. A great many events, characters, crises and reversals are packed into this novel, often so tightly compressed that it's easy to miss a nuance of dialogue or a glancing reference. Like several of Parker’s previous novels, The Folding Knife is underpinned by a sense of inescapable fate: everything seems as though it's playing out in accordance with a greater plan, though—at least in The Folding Knife—that plan has no obvious architect. In the hands of a less competent writer, this rumble of destiny could simply be read as an over-reliance on convenient coincidence, but Parker succeeds in convincing us that there's no such thing as a coincidence without meaning.
Blue and Gold is set in the same world as The Folding Knife (and Parker's previous chapbook for Subterranean Press, Purple and Black), though considerably later in that world's history. It's a novella, just over a hundred pages long, and is much lighter in tone than The Folding Knife—though its narrator, the philosopher Saloninus, is fully cognizant that the sword (or poisoned elixir, or extremely explosive compound) is mightier than the pen, and doesn't hesitate to use violence to achieve his ends. Saloninus—who is also an alchemist, a poet, and the "greatest living authority on ethical theory" (p. 39)—is on the run. His wife is dead (having imbibed one of Saloninus's experimental concoctions) and his brother-in-law Phocas, the Prince Regent, is keen to keep Saloninus around, in order to harness Saloninus's alchemical genius for his own ends. If Saloninus can transmute base metal to gold, Phocas might finally forgive him for the death of his own wife, executed for adultery...
Like Basso, Saloninus is amoral, dishonest and too clever for his own good; unexpectedly charming, and always several steps ahead of his own narrative (which is, he warns us, thoroughly unreliable). Parker teases us with scraps of alchemical theory, allusions to Saloninus's philosophical works (Ethical Dilemmas, On Form and Substance) and discussions of the real challenges on the table: explosives, the gold standard, the impossibility of recreating the color blue. ("For three bits, the sea’s green." (p. 22)) Though the events of the novella are fairly straightforward, the gradual revelation of Saloninus's past crimes and present agenda is pleasingly complex.
Parker's writing continues to captivate. It's intelligent, sardonic, and vivid, awash with detail and alive with dialogue. There's still an over-reliance on personal pronouns, the elision of a few key facts, and some apparently out-of-character behavior that only makes sense if the reader adopts an almost paranoid perspective. And while we're on the subject of pronouns ... Parker is famously elusive, but recent publicity suggests that the author is female. It has to be said that the women in both The Folding Knife and Blue and Gold get a raw deal—though Basso's sister, and his second wife, are formidable characters whose impact on their world is curtailed more by Vesani society's inherent misogyny than by their own abilities.
Both The Folding Knife and Blue and Gold are marketed as fantasy, though there is no obvious magic, and few of the traditional fantasy tropes—dragons, gods, prophecies, heroes—in either book. Indeed, there may be less magic than in our own world, if we include religion and superstition under the catch-all category of "magic": there are priests and temples, but their power is secular rather than sacred, and there's no sense of any higher power.
Pace Diana Wynne Jones's Tough Guide to Fantasyland, there's no map of the territory either. (Actually, a map would be very useful in The Folding Knife, though a detailed understanding of the history of the Roman Empire might suffice.) Parker's pragmatic protagonists, enthusiasm for detail—cargo bills for warships, the economic implications of plague, the feed requirements for military horse—and classical references are all more reminiscent of solid historical fiction (by which I mean fiction set in the historical or ahistorical past) than of most contemporary fantasy writing. Is this an obtuse way of writing alternate history? Or is the magic there after all, just buried so deeply under that wealth of detail and convolution of plot, that it’s almost impossible to uncover?
Parker's view of human nature is seldom optimistic: both The Folding Knife and Blue and Gold feature protagonists who are cleverer than almost everyone around them, and whose intellectual gifts have made them arrogant, selfish and ambitious. Neither Basso nor Saloninus are entirely reliable narrators; this may be part of their improbable appeal. Parker's move from trilogies to single-volume works might imply a corresponding move towards simpler arcs. The stories in The Folding Knife and Blue and Gold, however, are just as complex and sprawling as we've come to expect from this author.
Tanya Brown lives in Surrey and has been reading and arguing about books lo these many years.
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