Despite being quite the enigmatic character, K.J. Parker’s books have become well-known for their intelligence and for their tendency to stray from the beaten path in terms of fantasy-genre literature. These aren’t books infused with magic or fantastical elements but novels that feature a very real-appearing, if secondary, setting, clever characters and more depth by half than your average fantasy novel. I can only speak from what I’ve read, which is Parker’s three latest standalone novels, but I think it’s fair to say that this is something that works quite well. The Hammer, emerges in my mind as the best from Parker yet, being an intriguing, powerful and deceptively deep novel in its own right.
The colony was founded seventy years ago. The plan was originally to mine silver, but there turned out not to be any.
Now an uneasy peace exists on the island, between the colonists and the once-noble met’Oc family, exiled to this remote stronghold for their role in a vaguely remember civil war. The family is tolerated, despite occasional cattle-stealing raids, not least owing to the small - but effective - number of weapons in its possession.
Gignomai is the youngest brother in the current generation of met’Oc. He is intelligent, resourceful, and determined. And he is about to learn exactly what it means to be a met’Oc - and what it means to defy them.
A word of warning before we well and truly get started: it should be made obvious now to those unacquainted with Parker’s books that these are not books for everyone. Though I strongly suggest giving them a try no matter what, these are books that are more emotionally and philosophically complex than what you’re typically likely to encounter in your bookstore’s fantasy section. It doesn’t have battles (or much fighting at all), magic, romances or any other such habitual plot elements. Personally, I think these are all strengths, but I’m aware this might not fit everyone’s criteria of an enjoyable read.
Parker’s last few books - this one included - read like social experiments in a fantasy setting. The Company saw a group of ex-soldiers setting off to establish their own colony and the difficulties that entailed. The Folding Knife explored the idea of having a banker, a trained administrator, as the political leader of a state and how that would play out. The Hammer continues in the same vein. In fact, it is very much a mix of the concepts behind its two predecessors. It takes the idea of an independent colony and that of a charismatic, educated and intelligent leader and brings them together. The Hammer, I think, is all the better for it. Somehow, it feels like this is what Parker was trying to get to in the other two books but its just now coming together.
The Hammer’s setting is a sober one. Nothing much more than the ragged hilltop residence of the destitute met’Oc and the barely developed town that forms the basis of the Colony. Yet in this rather insipid setting, Parker exposes an intricate, multi-faceted story that goes exploring an array of themes from justice, to death or family and all matter of other philosophical curiosities, approaching each with much clarity and a surprising depth.
Gignomai is a truly fascinating character, the reader being at times privy to his actions and at times not, leading to a false sense of awareness and incapacity to understand his motives until the last act of the novel, at which point Parker’s reveal is brilliantly able to shed some light on Gignomai’s motives and bring to the foreground well-reasoned observations on human behavior, all in a way that is entertaining and attractive to a fantasy reader. Which is to say it involves a lot of careful planning and machinations on the character’s part and a sometimes strangely honest narration on Parker’s part.
Truly, Parker’s work is much smarter than your average fantasy novel. When reading one of her books the reader is acutely aware that he is reading something that desires to achieve something other than just entertain him. In The Folding Knife, I found this to be ever so slightly detrimental to the plot and characters, but in The Hammer Parker appears to have perfected this aspect of her work, and is able to build as powerful a novel as before while keeping the right amount of emphasis on the plot, and even more so, the characters, which is as it should be.
The Hammer, then, is another great example of what Parker is capable of as a writer. If ever there were any doubts about her capacity to write and intelligent, compelling and enjoyable novel, a read-through of The Hammer should dispel them. With each novel - at least in the latest sequence of three standalone novels - Parker seems to gain in skill and mastery of her craft, which, frankly, seems almost impossible when looking at the level she started at. For those readers in search of something a bit different, something a bit more evocative and stimulating, The Hammer should be a near-perfect fit. For those that have not read any Parker yet, check out her other books, the aforementioned The Company and The Folding Knife, but also her Fencer Trilogy, Scavenger Trilogy and Engineer Trilogy.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Reading Age: 16 and up
K.J. Parker's Website (which seems to be under eternal construction): http://www.kjparker.net/
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