K.J. Parker is a writer that appears to have a constant presence in the background of the fantasy scene. Parker has been around for a while and occasionally one of their books, generally well publicized, gets released, yet Parker remains elusive. Their website is currently under construction and has been for some time. As you can see from my attempts at keeping references to Parker gender-neutral, we aren’t even sure whether she is a she or he is a he. Their books, though, speak for themselves. I’ve only read two of their's, this one, The Folding Knife, and the previous, The Company, both stand-alone, but I can attest of their quality. Where The Company might have been a bit more of a typical fantasy, The Folding Knife certainly isn’t but it does have its own appeal.
Basso the Magnificent. Basso the Great. Basso the Wise. The First Citizen of the Vesani Republic is an extraordinary man.
He is ruthless, cunning, and above all, lucky. He brings wealth, power and prestige to his people. But with powers come unwanted attention, and Basso must defend his nation and himself from threats foreign and domestic. In a lifetime of crucial decisions, he’s only ever made one mistake.
One, Mistake, though, can be enough.
This book is about one man. ‘One man’, you’ll say, ‘there are plenty of books that center on one character.’ I know. But this book could easily be re-titled as: The Life and Times of Bassianus Severus Arcadius. The book begins with him reminiscing before we jump straight into his adolescence, then his life as a young adult and then to when he is a forty-some man. Each chapter is self-contained, sort of like an analogy or a (very) short story. Each chapter is also thirty pages long. I’ve read some consistent writers but Parker beats them all. Up to now, this might not sound to you like the most interesting read but let me give you a little more to change your mind. If politicking is what you like then you are going to love The Folding Knife. A good 60% of the book concerns the politics of the Vesani Republic and/or how Basso manages the bank that he owns (being the richest man in the Republic), which anyways ends up being bank-politics. It takes a bit of getting use to, but the richness and detail in which Parker writes soon takes you in.
Eventually though, since this isn’t a banking book, other events do get set in motion that lead to battles and such happening in far off lands. The only issue is that Parker appears to be a fan of things happening behind the curtain or just out of sight. So basically every action scene, battle, skirmish or invasion is told either in a letter from one character to another or by the narrator once it has already happened. This, you can understand, will put off most readers that are in search of fast-paced action sequences or the like. I thought it was a bit refreshing, and in a way much clearer than some of the scenes were if they had been written “normally”, which is to say: told as they were actually going on. But nevertheless, the action sequences were sorely missed.
There are really only three characters that we get to know to any degree, with possibly a fourth standing on the line. Basso, of course, is the main one and is suitably developed, though the majority of the time spent with him, as was said before, is him thinking up his machiavellic plans. He’s also a bit of an anti-hero, having murdered his own wife and constantly using his privileges as both First Citizen and owner of the largest banks to acquire benefits. The other two characters are Bassano, Basso’s nephew, whom we get to know best through his letters and Aelius, the general, whom we follow through his campaigns for a bit. Other than those, the characters remain for the most part secondary or unexplored, which all fits in with the tone of the book.
The Folding Knife is a hard book to grade. I enjoyed it, but for very different reasons than I usually enjoy a fantasy book. In fact, it’s quite hard to classify this one as fantasy. For a start, there is no magic or no unknown creatures, the only thing left being a made-up world. Then again, with its close similarity to the political structure of Ancient Rome and its commercial resemblance to renaissance Venice, it still feels like more of a historical fiction than a fantasy. So my warning: do not read this if you want a fantasy story; go into this if you’re more in the mood for a smart, historical-like story with plenty of politics and twists. Otherwise, also feel free to look into K.J. Parker’s other books. They have a couple of series out as well as the quite good The Company. Parker’s next book is The Hammer, another standalone due for January 2011.
My Rating: 4 out of 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
K.J. Parker's Website: http://www.kjparker.net/
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