the best short novel from KJ Parker since Purple and Black to which it has some resemblance though it is now a first person narration set in the authothe best short novel from KJ Parker since Purple and Black to which it has some resemblance though it is now a first person narration set in the author generic Empire/Invincible Sun setting (the one without magic from books like Two of Swords, Sharps, Savages etc - with usual naming conventions, set-up, people, countries, provinces like the Sashan, Aram Vei, Scheria, permia) and has a present day annotation that explains the short novel (titled there Concerning the Monasteries) is the only extant first person narration document from the long ago Robur empire/civilization, so make of that whatever you want
the narrator is a 33 year old Imperial legate, nephew of the reigning empress, a former prostitute from a far away rural area of the empire who is caretaking the empire due to the illness of her husband, former general Ultor (that's when he married her, while retiring her best friend as an abbess of a far monastery and her regular clients to high window jumping or monastic orders), before taking the throne by arms;
it's the 5th year of the Emperor's incapacity and his end is assumed to be near, so the narrator is summoned to the palace and dispatched to the far North to take care of a pirate/raiders problem (the usual mysterious ones from other books) who plunder the rich monasteries that essentially own the impoverished North; the usual ironic, wry, likable, not the brightest flame but very well read and amenable to advice as well as liked by troops, officers and women (his aunt saved him a few times there from the wrath of the emperor when he was caught in fairly embarrassing situations with highly born noblewomen and princesses), the narrator sets up for the North, though not before taking care of a problem - in love with a high class prostitute himself, who doesn't quite care about him, he has to save her when she is knifed in the belly, so he buys a 6 Million house in the middle of the night as being mostly away on the front-lines, he doesn't have a City house to take her and bring doctors to tend to her... Not something to endear him to his aunt perhaps, but another escapade adding to his "popular" legend...
and so it goes with the usual happenings (double dealings, mysteries, battles, former friends and newer enemies) for some 130-40 pages of pure KJ Parker delight
and while the pirates/raiders are seemingly the immediate enemy, our hero doesn't really know who is ready to stab him in the back or poison him or for that matter using more ingenious killing devices as in:
"It’s amazing the number of people who’ve asphyxiated in their sleep since **** took office.”
while of course the City and the succession loom in the background - including relatives like the Empress even more favorite nephew Scaurus, some 10 power hungry generals and the aristocracy who would want nothing better that to depose the empire and return the power to the people - where of course:
"Get rid of the emperors, give power back to the people—quite; except the people never had any power at any stage in our history, which was probably just as well. In this context, the people means the two dozen ancient aristocratic families who own half the land in the empire, the six dozen rich men who hold the mortgages on that land, the priesthood and, of course, the army."
full of ironic and wry observations on the nature of power, the scope of empire, the endurance of culture and books, Mightier than the Sword is KJ Parker at his best and also it represents an excellent introduction to his work that can get one hooked on the author's style which is quite distinctive in today's fantasy
One more quote that gives a great flavor of the tone:
"Now, then. Concerning the Land and Sea Raiders. I guess we were so very scared of them because we had no idea who they were, where they came from, how many of them there were, what (beyond anything not nailed to the floor) they wanted. They showed up about a hundred and thirty years ago, during the reign of that old fire-eater Vindex II. Our first experience of them was seventy long, high-castled warships suddenly appearing off Vica Bay. The governor, a civilized man with several well-received volumes of theological essays to his name, sent a message to their leader inviting him to lunch. He came, and brought some friends; it was sixty years before Vica was rebuilt, by which time the harbour had silted up and all the channels had to be dredged out. Next they manifested themselves as a long column of ox-carts trundling over the Horns. They looked like refugees; skeletal cows and horses, sad women and threadbare children plodding along behind the wagons. The prefect of Garania went out to meet them with relief supplies, food, tents, blankets. They cut his head off and stuck it on their standard, before marching on Beal Epoir and burning it to the ground. That, of course, was about the time when General Maxen was at the height of his incredible career. He caught up with them a week later and hit them so hard that we were sure we’d never hear about them again. Maxen lasted rather longer than most of our great generals; about six years, and then his head got nailed to the lintel of Traitors’ Gate, along with all the others, so that when the Raiders came back there was nobody to deal with them."
Assuming you buy its premise and do not throw it away disgusted when it is - close but not quite imho though opinions may differ about that in quite aAssuming you buy its premise and do not throw it away disgusted when it is - close but not quite imho though opinions may differ about that in quite a few places - jumping the shark (among many oddities, the novel contains a viking saga poem in verse cca 930's about the sack of an Walmart (!!) cca 2010's), this is a delight: funny (don't remember when i laughed out loud so many times when reading a book), zany, quite subtle on occasion (while it seems to start in our universe cca early 2010's, there is the Trapezoid rather than the Pentagon for example...) and with a format that adds a lot to the story-line - while most of the narrative is a first person Victorian-style (with modern annotations crossed out) from Melisande (see the blurb) who is marooned in London 1851 and wants to write a memoir and deposit it in a secure vault to arrive in our present and witness the creation of the D.O.D.O. and her role in that, there are narrations in many voices (Rebecca East Oda, descendant of Salem (!!) witches and New England aristocratic matron, whose genius physicist husband Frank Oda former professor at MIT, hounded from academia for alleged mistreatment of cats as in "the Schrodinger Cat" experiment, is the brain behind the time-traveling machine at the heart of D.O.D.O, and Grainne, Irish witch/spy in Elizabeth I England ~1601 are some of the more distinctive voices and powerful characters of the novel), transcripts of official documents (from debriefings after action, email exchanges between characters to the diversity policy of D.O.D.O - this one is a hoot, not to speak of the Halloween dress code official paper), the aforementioned Viking saga in verse and much more.
While 750+ pages long, the book ends way too soon (would have loved to read another 700 pages) and has a very useful glossary of the "alphabet soup" typical of governmental organizations (most common being D.O.D.O - Department of Diachronic Operations, D.T.A.P - Destination Time and Place, D.E.D.E - Direct Engagement for Diachronic Effect and K.C.W - Known Compliant Witch -) and a cast of characters in the various times and places the novel takes place (both have some spoilers so knowing the main acronyms above is probably enough to avoid needing read it until halfway through the book at least)
The ending is excellent in many ways (and has enough closure to make the book a fully satisfying read on its own) though it really reads like a stopping point with more to come in future volumes (which i would highly welcome)
Overall - fast, funny, some mind bending stuff and lots of ingenuity, close but not quite jumping the shark on occasion and the top novel of the year for me to date...more