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Sharps by K. J. Parker

Sharps by K. J. Parker
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Book Name: Sharps
Author: K. J. Parker
Publisher(s): Orbit
Formatt: Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Alternate History
Release Date: July 2012

I’d heard a lot about K. J. Parker (mostly from my friends/fellow bloggers Justin and Jared), before I picked up my first dose of the author’s work in the form of Sharps. Having never read a K. J. Parker novel before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’ve heard just about every kind of opinion on the author ranging from ‘terribly confusing’ and ‘the ending made this a pointless read’ through to ‘a damned genius’ and ‘the most underrated author writing within the genre’.

If you take the reviews, add them together, divide them up and look for an average, the general consensus on K. J. Parker is that his/her* work is pretty weird at times, but should you stick with the book/series and really pay attention to not just the story, but the sub-text too, all will make sense by the end of the book and you’ll see and respect Parker’s brilliance.

I should begin by pointing out that reviewers generally agree that Sharps is Parker’s least weird novel and apparently not the best book to get a true feeling of the author’s style. Having earned this reputation for writing weird and complex fantasy, Sharps seems to be an attempt by the author to write a book that is relatively straight forward and appeals to a mass market – I do feel, though, that Parker may have made a mistake in doing this (something I will comment upon later).

To move on from a discussion of the author and dive into the premise of the book: Sharps is the tale of a band of misfits who have been forced to form the country’s National Fencing Team.

Sounds fun, right? Well, not so much; the Scherian Government that have formed this fencing team have done so in order to send them across the border to a province that they’ve had little contact with since their 30 years of war ended. The idea is that by sending a team from Scheria to Permia and participating in the tournament they have been invited to, the two countries will be able to unite through their mutual love of the sport, put their differences behind them and move on – once and for all.

However, with all the bad blood behind the two countries, people are quite rightly reluctant to apply for the team. Having made very little contact in the years since the war, no one really knows how the Permians will react to Scherians entering their country. And, what would happen if the Scherians won? Would it enrage the Permians? Maybe even cause another war?

Unable to find any volunteers, as you might expect, The Government resorts to other measures to ‘convince’ skilled fencers to join the team. Unable to pull the kind of stunts they pull on your typical, innocent nobles, we find ourselves with a rather unlikely team that, right from the word go, looks set to self-destruct at any moment.

The team manager is three time fencing champion Phrantzes. He is pushed into the team by means revealed much later in the book (so I won’t spoil them now). Having suffered God knows what through the war, his personal motto – that he consistently forces on the rest of the team – seems to be: ‘stop your whining; get on with it’. Fighting for him we have an aging Suidas, former fencing champion turned drunk. He has been talked into the fencing team with the promise of money having drunk what he’d earned from his war days. Then there is a young Giraut, who is of a more noble background than the rest of the team and, although he has considerable fencing skills, women have always come first. In fact, it is sleeping with the wrong woman and getting caught in the act of doing so (literally) that sees him offered the choice of joining the national fencing team as opposed to the death penalty. Iseutz is our only female member. She is also of relatively high birth too and was set to be married off in order for the family to gain political status. Not very into that idea, her father offers her the alternative of fencing and to his surprise she takes it. Addo is the son of General Carnufex who is said to have won the 30 year war for Scheria. Addo is probably the most grounded and stable of the team, sharing his father’s intellect and ability to deduce.

I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say that things don’t turn out great. In fact, from the moment they first board the coach and it breaks down in the middle of nowhere, things go from bad to worse on a relatively consistent basis. And, indeed, by the end of the book the fact that quite literally ‘everything’ that could go wrong for the team has gone wrong becomes comical. Surprisingly, I think this is one of Sharps biggest strengths. This isn’t another fantasy book where everything falls in place for our protagonists and nothing is quite as bad as it seems.

My biggest problem with the book was the pacing. The story begins within about 50 pages, the team has been assembled and we are ready to get into the fencing. Then, Parker sets us on a coach that seems to take forever until it finally arrives in Permia. Granted, K. J. Parker does introduce a small skirmish alongside a lot of worldbuilding, setting up of a complex political structure and explaining everything there is to know about the recent war during this time, but I was about as sick of the coach as the characters themselves.

I believe we were ‘on the way to Permia’ for about 100 pages, which is a heck of a lot when you pick up a book that has the premise of ‘fencing’ – a high paced combat sport. Still, Parker’s writing is eloquent and humorous enough that you will stick with it in anticipation of what will happen upon arrival. That said, once the team arrive in Permia and you’re all prepared for some high impact fencing action, it simply doesn’t come. Their first bout lasts around 3 pages and then we don’t see any more fencing for another 200 pages or so. I really did struggle with the fact that in a book about fencing we had 2/3 episodes of fencing and both were incredibly short and straight forwards.

This brings me to my next problem. In K. J. Parker’s attempt to write a mass-market book he/she has not included a single element of the story that could be classed as ‘fantasy’ – well, fantastical at least. Rather, this is a book set in an early-Europe setting, with a completely different political system to our own. Now, in many ways I like the idea that people can create their own world, very similar to Earth and just ‘run with it’. However, I do find myself a little disappointed that someone being referred to as ‘the most under-rated writer in our genre’ isn’t actually writing ‘fantasy’ as I’d like to think of it. This is certainly a hard point to argue, I mean, when is fantasy ‘fantasy’? Do you have to have magic? Dragons? Or does just having slightly different geography count? It would be unfair of me to answer that when so many people enjoyed this book, but at times it felt like lazy alternative-history.

Again, back to the story: upon arriving in Permia, it is obvious that not all is as it seems. The fencing bout they took part in was done so with rules and stipulations that none of them expected. Rather than using blunt blades with buttons on the tip (foils), they are told that the Permians fight with ‘Sharps’, which are essentially swords – simple as that. Matches are to first blood or to a position where a kill would be easily achievable, but with sharp swords and a need to defend yourself, accidents happen. Again, we have to wonder: what happens if a Scherian kills a Permian with the delicate political situation as it is? Will it cause another war? The Government having forced these characters together with threats – do they really care?

There is no denying that K. J. Parker has some of the very best prose I’ve ever come across. His/Her characters, although having voices that all sound very similar, are likeable and consistently witty. K. J. Parker has an ability to make you grin with his/her pessimism at least once per page and that’s quite a talent. You end up caring more about the character development than story and politics going on in the background, and, actually, that isn’t such a bad thing. When you let yourself forget about those politics and the fencing tournaments and concentrate on the fact that these five complete misfits are becoming a true ‘team’ and changing each other you’ll find yourself flipping through the page.

Despite my doubts of Parker’s ability to do so around 80% through, the plot is tied up nicely in the last 30 pages or so and you are left feeling that sticking with the book, even during that longgggg coach trip and tour of Permia, was worthwhile.

Certainly, I’ll be picking up a different K. J. Parker novel and hoping that without the constraints he/she has set his/herself in writing a book with mass-appeal there will be a book with the same whit, likeable characters and flawless prose, but with a better pace and deeper story lying in wait.

*The author’s true identity is unknown, all we know is that K. J. Parker is the pen name of an author who writes in another genre.

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Rating: 7.2/10 (9 votes cast)
Sharps by K. J. Parker, 7.2 out of 10 based on 9 ratings
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4 Comments

  1. Lionwalker says:

    Hey Marc, nice review. You made one point I want to highlight again – the lack of fantasy in the novel. This is something I have been noticing, especially in the ‘gritty’ trend over the last few years. Fantasy has become less fantastical as though it is trying to grow up or ‘be taken seriously’. There are a few books out now that class as Fantasy but would more rightly fall under something closer to alternative history (I’m not a fan of labels, but this time I can’t see away a round it. Fantasy should do what it says on the box) or ‘alternative-world/history’. I think this is a shame and hope it’s not a trend that gets too dominant.

  2. Khaldun says:

    Purple and Black is the only bit of writing I’ve read by KJ Parker, and I didn’t put it down till I was done (it is a novella, however, so take that for what it’s worth). I’m interested in reading more fantasy from Parker, even if they they tend to be light on fantasy elements.

  3. Anne Lyle says:

    A very fair review, Marc – though of course I disagree on the matter of it not being fantasy. The first volume of A Song of Ice and Fire has precious little fantastical content: a couple of brief appearances by the White Walkers, and the hatching of some alleged baby dragons (which could just be baby lizards for all we know at this point). From what I’ve heard of Parker’s work, the other books aren’t any more fantastical, just a lot darker and off-the-beaten-genre-track, so you might be disappointed.

    The issue is, how else do you classify a book that’s most certainly not set in the real world? You can’t shelve it with historical fiction; it might just fit into literary or mainstream fiction but is probably a bit too “out there”. In the case of a book like this, “fantasy” is just a marketing label that says “well, it’s not SF either, but some of you guys are bound to like it.” Besides, Sharps undoubtedly belongs on the shelves with books like Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, so that people like me can find it 🙂

  4. Jorda says:

    I’m nearly done with Sharps and I agree with the weaknesses you’ve highlighted, but I still really love the book. I read The Folding Knife a few months back and thought it was brilliant. You ought to consider it for your next Parker read.

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