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The Company by K. J. Parker

The Company by K. J. Parker
Book Name: The Company
Author: K. J. Parker
Publisher(s): Orbit
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Military Fantasy
Release Date: October 29, 2008

When freshly retired General Kunessin returns home, he has a plan to reunite the four surviving members of his old team and start a better life with them on an abandoned island. But life rarely runs according to plan.

That’s the central premise of The Company by K.J. Parker, and one that hooked me as soon as I read it. I have to confess, I’m always been partial to the old ‘leader assembles team for one last mission’ plot – it’s one that’s been used many times across most genres – and The Company looked like it would be an interesting twist on this. I expected something like a cross between The Magnificent Seven and Lord of the Flies, but with a few more swords and bloody battles. I’d never read any of K.J. Parker’s other works, so the thought of an author new to me was equally appealing.

Well, it’s not exactly like that, but the book doesn’t suffer from not living up to my expectations. Yet, in the same way, it did feel like a slight disappointment.

The back cover bills the book as ‘a breathtaking story of war, friendship and betrayal’. Straight away, then, you can guess that one of the former soldiers has been up to no good; although the question does remain, which one of them?

All five veterans hail from the same village, were childhood friends who joined the army at the same time. Thick as thieves, they bonded further in military academy, then as a unit when the war started; through neat use of flashbacks, their past as a company is gradually revealed.

Kunessin meets with each of the four men in turn, struggling with his disappointment at seeing what these former warriors have become in the years since they left the army. Yet, each man also hides his own disappointments; life has not turned out as they hoped, the dream they’d talked about while fighting the war has not been realised.

Kunessin offers them that dream, saying he has secured an abandoned island where they can live in peace and work the land. The men must make their decision – follow their beloved leader, or stay where they are. It’s no contest; the men agree, and preparations are made to set sail and start their new life.

It’s in these early parts where the book really came to life for me. Here were five elite front-line fighters who had essentially amounted to nothing once they’d returned home. Each character is well drawn – teasing glimpses of their pasts are revealed through flashback – and the reader can’t help feel sympathy for all of them. They have their merits and the flaws, just like people in real life. While Kunessin is the first character we meet, we’re also allowed to share the thoughts and feelings of the others as equally, if not more so in some cases. And, the spectre of betrayal is ever looming in the air…

Once the decision is made, the planning begins. It’s here where I felt the story faltered. We are given great detail as to how the money Kunessin has amassed will be spent; one example is the positioning of animals in the ship’s hold. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t ruin the book, but I felt my enthusiasm begin to wane. In these sections (there are a few more describing how the island will be managed and the way any necessary engineering will work) Parker’s prose felt cold and practical, stark contrast to the previous warmth and interest in the characters and their situation. Even the dialogue seemed stilted, like it was nothing more than exposition at times.

Then, arriving on the island, the story kicks in again. There are twists and turns as the men find more than they bargained for on their new home. Here, the idyll isn’t quite realised, and the past threatens to catch up with the veterans in more ways than one. My only complaint is that so much happened in the last twenty or so pages, that is all ended so quickly, as if the final confrontation was rushed. That aside, it was a sensible and satisfying conclusion to a good story.

I’m in two minds about this one. While I did enjoy it, there were parts where I really struggled. This could go back to my role-playing days – when I’d rather be wading in with sword drawn than spending an entire evening planning which provisions and equipment to take on the dungeon crawl – but it often felt as if two people had written this novel. I know very little about K.J. Parker (despite having written three trilogies), but there is one side of the author who is warm and caring about characters, while the other is fiercely practical.

Yet, at its height, Parker’s writing is utterly engrossing. I couldn’t put the book down while I was reading the first third, learning about the characters; there is genuine warmth and humour in those early scenes. While the flashbacks are used regularly, there is never anything unnecessary about them; they aren’t just for show, but they make the characters contrast superbly with the men they are now. One look into the past shows the traitor, but his name is never revealed. This was superbly done for this scene, but there are others where ‘he’ or ‘she’ is used too much, and there is the odd occasion where it’s hard to keep track of who is speaking when there are other characters around.

So, while not the novel I’d expected and feeling like it was a ‘how to do’ manual at times, did I enjoy this? Overall, I’d have to say yes. Not as good as I’d hoped, admittedly, but it was certainly worth a read. I cared about the characters, and the story was good enough to keep me turning the pages until the end. As a tale of men seeking their redemption through new lives, only for their past to return to haunt them, The Company works on many levels. Once the equipment has been bought, this adventure is definitely worth taking.


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