According to the biographical notes in some of Parker's books, Parker has previously worked in law, journalism, and numismatics, and now writes and makes things out of wood and metal. It is also claimed that Parker is married to a solicitor and now lives in southern England. According to an autobiographical note, Parker was raised in rural Vermont, a lifestyle which influenced Parker's work.
Terrific novel set in Parker's alt-Byzantine world. In this case a fencing team is sent to the neighbouring country seven years after the war as a goodwill gesture. Obviously it's a lot more complicated than that, as politics, scheming, xenophobia, war, murder, and varieties of trauma intervene. The team is made up of a lot of flawed people, none of whom are heroic, but if you need unambiguously likeable or praiseworthy MCs this is not your author.
I thoroughly enjoyed this. Great twisty plot, the characters are messy and thus fun, the interactions are great, the violence real and bloody and scary, and the ending satisfying.
There’s this relatively new rage in fantasy, and I’ve never been a fan of it. Authors—like Daniel Abraham and Joe Abercrombie—create a rich world with a lot of history, but zoom in on only one aspect of their world’s story in each book. Unlike the stories told in traditional fantasy, these are tales of characters instead of events. Think of it as the siege of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings, told solely from the viewpoints of a rider in the army of Rohan and an Orc under Sauron’s command.
Another author from the school of Abraham and Abercrombie—or perhaps the master of said school—is K.J. Parker. I have always been afraid to give Parker’s work a chance. However, when Parker’s latest work, Sharps, came across my path, I couldn’t resist giving it a try—a decision I don’t regret. While characters of other books in this subgenre—might I call it micro-fantasy?—were a turnoff for me, Parker’s characters are wonderfully unique and wholly engrossing. Where I could never really get into the stories of those other two authors, Parker pulled me in from the get-go and didn’t release me until long after I finished the last page.
Ambiguous bastards Now, before you judge my opinion based on my dislike of the aforementioned authors, let me set something straight: both Abraham and Abercrombie are incredibly skilled writers, and their popularity testifies to that. The fault is entirely mine. You see, I am quite particular about my fantasy: I need a conflict of good versus evil. Sharps has that conflict. Sure, the evil isn’t quite as traditional; and the characters… well, the characters are each of them skillfully written, morally ambiguous bastards. But these bastards—a murderer, a drunk, the son of a war criminal (or hero, depending on which side you stand), a whiny girl, and a mysterious soldier—have been united against their will with a common goal in mind: to make sure that the uneasy peace between the rivaling nations of Scheria and Permia is maintained. This goal seems noble enough, as Parker makes abundantly clear through various random viewpoints just how high the economic and cultural stakes really are.
Sabotage and intrigue From the very start, it is unclear who pulls the strings of this team of characters, or what motives are behind it, but the characters themselves—all “regular” Scherian citizens—wish only to do what they came to Permia to do: fence for sport in order to extend an olive branch in this cold war that succeeded a long and bloody conflict—and, if at all possible, make it back home safely despite their fencing tour seemingly being sabotaged at every corner.
This simple premise makes Sharps a marvelous read. Through Parker’s witty narration and intense eye for psychological detail, I immediately cared for the characters. When they were thrust into a dangerous world of political intrigue before too long, I was on the edge of my seat, flipping the pages as fast as I could. The relentless pace with which the characters are sent from one deadly situation to another, without ever truly being in control of their own fates, is breathtaking. The web of political factions and their conflicting motives is perplexing—in the best way possible. Throughout Sharps, only one question burned in my mind: how are these protagonists ever going to make it out of this alive?
Fencing with sharps The best thing about Sharps, however, isn’t the complex scheming and plotting, nor the terrific ambiguous characters. No, the best thing about Sharps is the fencing. The characters were put together for a fencing tour through their rival nation’s cities, and thus, fencing is the unifying theme throughout this novel. Parker’s magnificent prose exalts these fencing matches to a form of art. A deadly art, for while our Scherian protagonists expected to be fighting with blunted instruments, their Permian opponents are using sharps—real weapons that inflict very real wounds. Add to that the fact that Scherian fencing is about grace and elegance, but Permian fencing is about brutally and efficiently drawing first blood, and the protagonists’ objective to stay alive without killing any Permians is suddenly given a very tangible meaning. Perhaps the only fault in Sharps is the fact that there aren’t nearly enough of these high-paced, awe-inspiring, astonishing fencing scenes.
Why should you read this book? As a newbie reader of Parker’s works, I cannot compare Sharps to his or her various previous works. I have heard other reviewers say that this novel is his or her first more commercially viable work. The validity of that statement—which may be the reason why I loved it so much—is something I intend to find out for myself; Sharps has inspired me to read more of Parker’s books. It is an incredible story of realistically wrought characters, facing a world of intrigue, with a political complexity matching our own world, where the stakes are intensely high. As a reader, though, I simply wanted the protagonists to make it through the story in one piece. And frankly, that very fact made this novel simply mind-blowing.
short review version: quintesential Parker. Those already familiar with the works of the author will recognize familiar themes and characters, signature plot twists or moral dillemas. Also instantly recognizable is the dry style and the black humor. Yet, Parker appears capable of infusing fresh blood into these familiar territories, making the swordfighters in Sharps are different from the ones in the Fencer, Engineer or Scavenger books, yet members of the same family of slightly psychopatic loners with a fetish for technology and a results based approach to ethics.
I've read all the previous books by Parker, and liked them all, so it is not a surprise I rate Sharps as one of the best reads of 2012 for me. There's something special about it that makes it my favorite, probably the fact that it is fresh in my memory compared to the others, but also the change of focus on group dynamics instead of "lone wolf" crusades typical of previous books. Arguably, the five members of the Skerian National Fencing Team are cast in the same mold of introverted genius unable of normal human interaction with his fellow human beings, but they are forced by circumstances to live together for weeks in cramped spaces, under intense psychological pressure, and most of the novel is about the clash of strong personalities and the killing secrets each of them tries to hide.
I've goten ahead of myself and forgot to introduce the plot: Enter two neighboring nations - Scheria and Permia - frontier provinces who seceded from their Eastern, respectively Western Empires, following the Great War that left both imperial authorities weakened. Both countries are on the brink of the industrial revolution, nominal democracies with the political power passing from the hands of nobility, military and clerical castes ( The Beautiful and Good ) to bankers and industrialists. What the two countries have in common is that they're both crazy about fencing, apparently as crazy as Brazilians are about soccer or Spaniards about corridas.
The actual plot is too complex to resume in a couple of phrases, and it really kept me guessing until the last pages, but it is basically the type that conspiracy theorists would love, with Skerian oligarchs (bankers, military elite, clergy) plotting either a new war, a land grab, a financial hit, a change of government, a lasting peace or all of the above. The means of achieving their goals is to send the best fencers in the country on a goodwill tournament to their former enemies, the Permians. The gathering of the team makes for a spectacular prologue, with each of them blackmailed in one form or another to join the project: - Suidas Deutzel: the current holder of the fencing title, a former soldier with a volatile temper (posttraumatic stress disorder, anyone?) and a sick fascination with meat cleavers instead of the classical rapiers or sabres. He is bribed with a large sum of money. - Iseutz Bringas: a young Valkirie who can take care of herself, has a biting tongue and prefers to join this circus in order to escape from an arranged marriage. - Adolescentus (Addo) Carnufex: the dutiful son of the most famous Skerian general, a brilliant tactician known as the Irrigator after he drowned an entire Permian city in the last war. Addo obeys his father request to join the club. - Giraut Bryennius: a young libertine who kills the enraged father of the last lady he seduced, and who exchanges a murder trial for the chance to defend the national colours. - Jilem Phrantzes: captain of the team and former fencing champion. He is framed for possessing pornography. The puppetmasters, pulling the strings from the shadows are Tzimisces (a secret agent for the government and general troubleshooter on the trip), Symbatus (aging abbott of Monsacer) and Turcuinn Boioannes, director of Investment Policy at the Bank.
Expect the unexpected: nothing goes according to the initial plan, and the team will soon be attacked on the high road, forced to fence with live blades (sharpened, hence the title) and involved in a bloody popular uprising and then counterinsurgency by mercenary troupes in Permia. The novel uses a rotating point of view, and the author keeps the cards close to the chest, reluctantly dribbling the background information for each character and hiding their true motivations. There will be the expected episodes of technological know how (fixing a broken carriage axle) and weapon manufacturing (messers: mess you up, got it?) , lots of details about high finance and tactical warfare, but I thought they were all toned down compared with what I came to expect from the author. What really surprised me was how funny I found the exchanges between the team members and the situations they are thrown in. There is bleakness, and futility, and excessive gory details , after all this is a K J Parker novel, but I don't remember laughing so much at her other books, or one with a less gloomy ending. Here's a couple of examples of what I'm talking about: A wise man once said, there's no problem that can't be solved by a kind word, a five-figure payment or three inches of sharp metal. --- I don't like not being in control of the news supply. If people find out things we don't want them to, any form of coherent government becomes impossible.
The pacing and the action scenes are also better handled than before, and for these reasons, I would venture to declare Sharps probably the best introduction to new readers for getting them hooked on the author, before trying one of the three book series or the other stand-alones.
Another thing I noticed here is the apparent unity of the worldbuilding between different novels. Despite different names for countries and people (but using similar naming conventions inspired by Latin and Greek), I get the feeling all her / his books are set in the same world, and a careful reader with a better memory than me would probably recognize the nomadic tribes of fierce warriors from The Hammer and The Engineer books in the Aram Chantat from Sharps. I saw also a mention of the Mezentine manufacturing empire from The Engineer, something about the banking monopolies from The Folding Knife, and the ruthlessness of wars from The Scavenger and The Company.
The defining moment of the book for me comes when the fencers are cooped up inside the carriage and try to stave off boredom with social games. Parker uses the premise to present the reader with the underlying philosophy of his / her writing and the techniques used to create conflict and to shake the audience out of complacency. Other writers have explained how they put the characters in the worst possible situations in order to see what they are made of ( Lois McMaster Bujold, Robin Hobb), but Parker goes one step further, and ask us this:
The point is, there's nothing, absolutely nothing that any of us wouldn't do, if we had to. If you say otherwise, you're just kidding yourself. You can talk all day about right and wrong and good and evil; all it means is you haven't come up against the situation where you've got to do it, you haven't any choice. I mean, it's all garbage anyhow. At least half the story's always the reason why you do something. You can give me a whole string of things that normally you'd say were the most appaling crimes, and then I'll give you cases where they're not only justified, they're absolutely the right thing to do.
Looking back to his/her oeuvre, the statement above strikes me as Parker's creed and it holds true for every single main character so far and all the shocking twists, betrayals and crimes perpetuated in every single book. The author sets out to demonstrate time and time again that morality is a lie, and each man, each case should be judged on its own merits and not by the old fashioned or arbitrary laws generally accepted without challenge by society. I tend to disagree with this statement, but honestly I haven't been put into a life and death situation of the kind constructed here. As an intellectual exercise, I can admire the sophism of the argument, but emotionally I'm not ready to accept the premise:
It'd be a terrible mistake, the worst possible, to assume we're dealing with people here. there's nothing there to be reasoned with. It's mechanics, and chess.
And this, Ladies and Gentlemen, is K J Parker for whom the story will always be about power: who has it, who wants it, and what are they prepared to do in order to obtain it. A cynical view for sure, but it serves its purpose of forcing the reader to position himself on one side or the other of the moral dilemma, of thinking things through and maybe come up with a counter argument.
They've made the mistake of thinking that once you've got power, you'll live happily ever after, like princesses in fairy tales. But the essential nature of power is that it's an ongoing process.
Предполагам, че на български заглавието на романа би било "Остриета".
Странен подход към развитието на историята в него е избрал за романа си К. Дж. Паркър, първите 350 страници се влачат относително протяжно, за да стигнем до последните сто, в които всичко натрупано до тук експлоадира неудържимо.
Имаме две малки враждуващи съседни страни - Шерия и Пермия, които са били вкопчени в една 70 годишна война, обезкървила ги финансово, човешки и психически.
Но интргите не спират и когато група шерийски фехтовачи трябва да посетят Пермия и да премерят сили с местните шампиони, едно необмислено действие или провокация биха разпалили тлеещия пожар отново. Отделно и самите герои не са никак случайно подбрани, оказват се движени от набор различни мотиви и принуди.
В гнездото стършели участват шерийската военна аристокрация, водена от блестящия генерал Карнуфекс - победител във войната за Шерия, всемогъщата Банка и местното духовенство. Взривоопасна смес, в която всеки тегли чергата към себе си, па дори и с риск да я разкъсат на парчета.
По-голямата част от действието се развива в Пермия, а за мен най-интересни се оказаха наемниците, ползвани от местните вече като милиции, следящи за опазване на вътрешния ред в страната - Синьокожите от Източната империя и конните варвари Арам Шантат.
Първите са дисциплинирана и модерна войска, заета на Пермия вероятно с някакви тайни помисли от съседна могъща империя, вторите са няколко вечно враждуващи тип шотландци кланове, но верни на наемнческата си чест и строгите си племенни вражди и обичаи. За съжаление, описанията само леко се плъзгат по тях, което е крайно недостатъчно, за да ги опознаем по-обстойно.
Струваше си да се прочете, но определено няма да допадне на всеки читател. Нямаше почти никакви битки или дуели, нещо което очаквах, с оглед на синопсиса на книгата. Не е и същинско фентъзи, по скоро прилича на исторически роман, разположен в измислен от автора за целта свят.
P.S. Хората в тая книга имат най-изкилифарчените и трудни за запомняне имена, на които съм попадал в кариерата си на читател! :)
Sharps is vintage KJ Parker but also the most complex of the author's standalone novels, while bringing elements from all the author's oeuvre and connecting with earlier works like Purple and Black which is alluded in the book - though of course as it is KJ Parker, the details may not be precisely the same in so far the Empire in P&B worshiped the Invincible Sun (like the Western Empire and Scheria here, Scheria being the country of our heroes and either former province of the Western Empire or never conquered depending on whom you listen to) while here the Eastern Empire (former conqueror and now ally of of our heroes' opponents, the Permians) to which the allusions are made worships the Fire God (s?)
But this is one of author's trademarks, describing a deep but mutable history depending on who is writing it...
Anyway back to the book and the story goes like this (as I do not have yet an e-version, I cannot c/p quotes but the novel is full of quotable lines and i hope to have some for the full review later in the year):
- two former border provinces of the Western and Eastern Empires left independent more or less as detritus after the Empires long war a few hundred years ago, manage to get into a war of their own for the possession of a barren border land-strip that is rumored to contain huge mineral deposits
More populous Scheria and richer Permia go at it for a long time - some four decades, Scheria with conscript manpower, Permia mostly with Imperial and barbarian mercenaries, "the Blue Skins" and the Aram Chantat respectively, in addition to their less numerous conscripts - but ultimately they both run out of money and people and the military aristocracy in both countries which ran the war falls from power and becomes mostly bankrupt, while the Bank in Scheria and the mine owners in Permia have an uneasy seven year truce going at the beginning of the novel in 614 AUC.
However the last and most notable feat of war, the total flooding and submerging under water of a major Permian city, by the best general of the war (and some say, best such in centuries), Scherian general Carnufex known forever as "The Irrigator" sort of gave Scheria the "moral win" though as mentioned both countries are almost bankrupt as the treaty negotiations go nowhere fast so the riches of the DMZ cannot be exploited to prop both economies.
Adding some recent instability in the Permian economy as their mainstay, silver mining is getting competition in the Empire and the plotting of the still standing not bankrupt members of the aristocracy like Carnufex (retired with honors but privately seething at the current Bank run government of Scheria) and the situation is quite unstable, when a new factor that can make or break it appears, namely a Scherian fencing team invited to visit fencing-mad Permia and give three exhibit games.
And in the first few pages we get to meet the mostly unlikely members of the team:
Suidas Deutzel (mid 30's), fencing champion of Scheria, habitual drunk with an expensive actress girlfriend and numerous creditors to satisfy from the winnings game to game, former war hero or war criminal depending on who tells it, who needs the money the Scherian government offers him for a trip to Permia; of course as he is not that stable there is a clear possibility he may run amok and restart the war single handed
Iseutz Bringas (early 20's) - the one girl on the team, she is tall and not that polished, a former junior ladies champion from a middle management bank family, who accepts the highly risky tour as alternative to a political marriage
Giraut Byrennius (early 20's) - perennial student from an upper class family, highly skilled amateur fencer who prefers bedding upper class university girls to pretty much anything else including work and study, until his latest "conquest" leads him into big trouble, so it is the gallows or Permia...
Addo (Adulescentulos) Carnufex (24), youngest son of the general (out of 4, three surviving, one dead in the war), good fencer as all the nobility, pacifist, chess master, highly intelligent and attractive who worships his father who in turn seems to regard him with contempt for his pacifist views
And then we have the team manager/coach, 51 year old wool merchant Phrantzes, former 3 time fencing champion of Scheria (record at the time), former supply major under Carnufex in the war, recently and somewhat scandalously married to a 37 year old lady of foreign and unseemly origins (former prostitute etc) who is "convinced" to lead the team despite being manifestly unsuited and unwilling
Supervising them, political officer Timizces, anonymous looking and always disappearing when bad things are ready to happen and the s**t starts looking like hitting the fan.
And of course there are the secrets, personal and political, the power players, real and pretend, the machinations and the intrigue.
High stakes indeed and unclear what chance at survival our five unlikely heroes have...
Coming back now to a discussion of themes and characters, for people familiar with the author's work, Suidas is not unlike the heroes of The Company, Addo not unlike Gignomai, Iseutz not unlike the heroine with the same name in the Fencer trilogy though with less baggage, while Giraut and Phrantzes are the seemingly expendable nobodies that appear in various places (including for example Ziani in the Engineer trilogy); what is the right thing to do, can the honorable thing be wrong and the dishonorable thing be right, the ambiguity of morality as dictated by circumstances etc etc - among the very numerous super touches of the book there is a game the heroes play when each names a thing they are sure they would not do under any circumstances and the cynical Suidas creates scenarios under which they agree they actually would do it -, all the familiar themes as mentioned combined with great prose and world building.
Outstanding and I would say this is probably the best KJ Parker novel so far and definitely will be a huge favorite mine (for now of course it is #1 of 2012 but there is IM Banks and the Culture coming soon...) alongside The Hammer, The Scavenger trilogy and Purple and Black which so far are my personal favorites from the author's work
Here is the full rv link (done together with Mihir):
"Sharp swords, dirty books and pickled cabbage. Why has everything on this trip got to be horrible?"
The neighboring kingdoms of Permia and Scheria have always been enemies. Some of their citizens like it this way — particularly those of the military aristocracies who are valued (and therefore kept in power) by their countrymen when the two kingdoms are at war. The last war ended, though, when General Carnufex of Scheria managed to divert a few rivers and flood a major Permian city, killing its entire population of thousands of people. It’s been years since General Carnufex (now known as “the Irrigator”) pulled out of Permia and the two countries, separated by a demilitarized zone, have mostly left each other alone.
Many people in each country (especially those of the lower classes) would like to forget the past and try to forge friendship and cooperation with the neighboring country. To this end (ostensibly) the Scherian government, with the help of its church and bank (a major force in Scherian society, since it holds the money) has decided to send a peace delegation consisting of five fencers and a couple of managers across the demilitarized zone and into Permia. The Permians are crazy about fencing and will surely treat the Scherian fencers as adored heroes.
The team is made up of six characters who are not especially eager to go to Permia. There’s Iseutz, an aggressive woman who is escaping an arranged marriage; Addo, the Irrigator’s useless youngest son; Suidas, the alcoholic Scherian fencing champion who can’t afford his girlfriend and turns out to be a berserker; Giraut, who accidentally killed the senator who was about to push through some major reforms; Phrantzes, an accountant and former fencing champion who just married a prostitute; and Tzimisces, an inscrutable man who seems to be in charge.
Each character has his own story and his own reason for reluctantly joining the team. It turns out that they were right to be reluctant because the problems begin even before they get to the border and the entire trip is an exercise in suffering. Nothing goes as it’s supposed to and the team has to deal with equipment failure, travel delays, bandits, bad weather, hunger, fatigue, riots, fire, language barriers, unpredictable mercenaries, an aspiring writer, and lots of pickled cabbage. But worst of all is the discovery that they won’t be fencing the way they’re used to because the Permians don’t use fencing foils — they use “sharps.” They’re also expected to fight with a nasty curved blade aptly called a “messer.” The Scherian fencers know they may not survive, but refusing to play the Permians’ way could ignite another war. To make things even worse, the team gradually starts to suspect that they are being used by some agency in their own country to further its political or economic goals...
I haven’t read all of K.J. Parker’s novels, but I’ve read enough to know that anything s/he writes goes directly to my TBR list. No need to ask my friends, no need to check Amazon or my favorite review sites, just put it on the list, and somewhere near the top. So, really, I shouldn’t have to say anything about Sharps except that “it’s written by K.J. Parker.” But just so you won’t think I took the easy way out, I’ll say some more stuff:
Sharps is completely entertaining from page one. The story is compelling, mysterious, often hilarious (though it’s definitely not a comedy), and written in Parker’s epigrammatic, no-nonsense, perfectly paced style. Parker’s world is described briefly but comprehensively enough that we understand the relevant political, economic, and social pressures. Parker uses these pressures to consider such topics as tax law, land redistribution, slavery, competition, class warfare, and trade relations.
Each of Parker’s characters is introduced quickly but thoroughly enough to engage our empathy, each is fun to listen to (and they have a terrific dynamic together), and each develops significantly over the course of the story, though a few of them never completely reveal themselves and I didn’t believe in the romance that developed between two of the characters. (This didn’t detract from the story, but a more believable relationship would have been much more satisfying.) My favorite character was Suidas Deutzel; I would love to see Parker write a prequel to Sharps from his perspective. (Please, K.J. Parker, whoever you are?)
Sharps is a novel that I’ll read again — something I very rarely do. I’m sure it will be one of my favorite novels of 2012.
But, he told himself, the past changes, like everything else. The further away you got, the vaguer it became, until you reached the point where your memories, unless corroborated by witnesses, were unreliable evidence. If there were no witnesses – well, a memory was property, after all. When there were no other witnesses to claim title to it, the memory belonged to you. It was no crime to bend it a little, to dull the edges, put a button on the point so it was no longer sharp. Only a fool would carry an unsheathed knife in his pocket.
I fenced in high school and college and usually enjoy a good swashbuckling story. I was really excited about Sharps because unlike The Princess Bride or generic high fantasy novel, this was specifically about "fencers," albeit in a fantasy setting. Unfortunately, this novel reads more like a combination of Waiting for Godot and a wannabe Terry Pratchett that I found the reading difficult and the description of the fencing so absurdly technical that I don't understand how it would be appealing to someone who had never fenced.
The novel opens with an introduction to all of the major players in this novel. However, this introduction is very random. Characters are not necessarily named, their actions are random and do not immediately lead to a coherent story, and the dialogue is somewhat painful if you can imagine the Samuel Beckett/Terry Pratchett combination of serious inanity and existentialism. None of the characters are particularly likeable and as a reader you are definitely led to certain conclusions about the personality and motives of the characters. Unlike some novels where you can see the ending from the first page, this book is intentionally obscure. 50 pages from the end I was still saying, "I have no idea how the author is going to wrap up this storyline." In that respect I applaud the author for not being obvious, but the ending left me having to go back and reread certain passages to make sure I understood what had happened and scratching my head because I didn't completely understand how the author managed this or that particular feat.
Did I mention there are no chapters in this book? 400 something pages and no chapters. I was annoyed when Hemingway did that with The Old Man and the Sea, but at least that book was short. I wish I could have read this book in one sitting, I might have enjoyed it more, but without chapter marks I felt uncomfortable putting the book down when I had to because I was in jeopardy of forgetting which characters I was following and what actions had lead up to the point I broke off at. There were paragraph breaks that allowed me rests, but seriously it could have used some chapters to demark which character I was reading about and where they were geographically.
The fencing was enjoyable to read and I got a few good chuckles out of it. However, I stand by the fact that if you were never into fencing the jokes about certain rules will not make sense and the classical styles and terminology will have you running to YouTube and Wikipedia for an explanation. I had thought at first this writer was a fencer, but it turns out he had gotten expert training from a classical style fencing master and several classic texts from the library. This means the author was really excited about fencing, but didn't really know how to relate what he learned to an audience that has no idea what he's talking about.
All in all, not really my favorite book. To difficult to get through and not written well enough for a layman. If you do fence it might be worth picking it up for things like "they fence in straight lines here" but really I think you will be exasperate by the lack of chapters and affected style of writing.
The last war between the neighboring countries of Permia and Scheria ended when Scheria’s greatest general redirected the course of a number of rivers and flooded one of the enemy’s cities, thereby killing tens of thousands of people and gaining the charming nickname “the Irrigator.” Some years later, as K.J. Parker’s newest novel Sharpsstarts off, the tension between the two enemies shows signs of thawing, so much so that there’s talk of sending a mission of goodwill across the Demilitarized Zone: a small team of Scherian fencers will embark on a tour of Permia, signaling the possible start of an era of rapprochement.
Fencing is, after all, the most popular sport in the area. Showing the common folks that “hey, we’re really not so different after all” will go a long way towards creating lasting peace and mutually beneficial trade between the former enemy nations. It’s a huge responsibility for the members of the fencing team, because even a small cultural misstep could lead to a major diplomatic incident. Of course, some of the fencers didn’t exactly volunteer for their new roles, making the entire tour a highly uncomfortable affair….
Sharps is full of action, both physical and mental, as well as mystery, humor and depth. Parker packs this single volume full of some of the most amazing, mentally engaging writing I’ve ever had the honor of reading. The characterization, depth and mystery are unparalleled. Coupled with Parker’s sarcasm and dark humor, Sharps is one of those books that sets the bar incredibly, almost impossibly high. Parker is a unique, refreshing and engaging voice in fantasy. Sharps is one of those books that is sure to amaze.
Read my full review (as well as a mini-interview with the author) here:
“Enthralling, Original. A Delight to read, fans of fantasy will enjoy this.” ~The Founding Fields
Despite the fact that I have been interested in reading KJ Parker’s novels for a while now, I never really go the chance to pick one up. However, now that I have read Sharps, I can safely say that I will be reading more from this author, if this work is anything to go by. Despite a few nagging issues that I had with this title, I still found it to be one of the best fantasy books that I’ve read so far that have been released in 2012.
K.J. Parker’s new novel is a perfectly executed tale of intrigue and deception.
For the first time in nearly forty years, an uneasy truce has been called between two neighbouring kingdoms. The war has been long and brutal, fought over the usual things: resources, land, money…
Now, there is a chance for peace. Diplomatic talks have begun and with them, the games. Two teams of fencers represent their nations at this pivotal moment.
When the future of the world lies balanced on the point of a rapier, one misstep could mean ruin for all. Human nature being what it is, does peace really have a chance?
The first thing that struck me as odd when I was reading Sharps was that it lacked any distinguishable chapters, the whole thing was told with little breaks between places and characters. You follow pretty much the same group of characters throughout the whole of KJ Parker’s latest novel, from the beginning to the end. Although this kept me reading, I did have an issue with the lack of chapters. Maybe because it was the first book that I read with no chapters, like Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are the Angels was the first novel that I read with no speech marks. However, after the oddity of no chapters was brushed aside at the beginning of the tale, midway through, you’ll soon find yourself enthralled and accustomed to KJ Parker’s enjoyable prose, and you won’t want to put the book down.
Our story focuses around the team of Fencers from Scheria, one of the nations previously involved in the conflict, the other being Permia. Whilst Scheria may be more populous than Permia, Scheria is richer. Now at a times of peace, the team of Fencers from Scheria are on a tour of Permia, who as it happens, turns out to be obsessed with fencing. Our characters are interesting to look at, although unfortunately not memorable enough to their names to stick in their heads for a long time after you’ve finished the book – like the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin do. Then again, KJ Parker can only achieve so much in a single novel, he didn’t intend Sharps to be part as a massive series like Martin did. So some things are sacrificed in Sharps, and as I found, it was the characters. You get a team of four lead by their manager, and they are as follows: Suidas Deutzel, fencing champion of Scheria, Giraut Byrennius, student from a higher class family, Addo Carnufex, a general’s youngest son, and Iseutz Bringas, the only female on the team and the one who has accepted the tour in order to escape from a political marriage. We’re introduced to them right from the get go, and although they might not be the most memorable characters out there (I had to go back to the book to get their names), they’re still interesting to look at and can still be rooted for as main characters, and are a far cry from a complete disaster – they don’t seem to be that far-fetched, unbelievable or unrealistic, at least – that’s what I found.
Whilst the characters may not be the book’s strong point though, the plot is pretty interesting. It’s not standard, and nor is it cliche, which is a good thing, and the history that Parker created for his world also felt rich and developed, which added to make the novel itself more enjoyable. We don’t just follow the plot from A to Z. We learn about why the characters in the plot are where they are, and why Parker’s world is in its current state. This is one of Sharps‘ stronger points, and although the pace was uneven at certain points in the novel, there were many aspects of Sharps that I felt still made it readable, and still made it enjoyable, some of which I’ve already mentioned. The story is compelling and the novel is, despite all the complexity at a first glance, a pretty simple read and easy to understand. You don’t get bogged down in politics, and the characters are all introduced quickly enough and you get to know them right from the get go. The action is well-written, the battle scenes are enjoyable to read, and the author manages to keep us entertained throughout the novel.
Although Sharps may have some flaws, the rest of the novel more than makes up for it. The interesting and unique concept of the setting and the fencing aspect of the novel allows for some interesting reading, and it also helps that it’s not overly long as well, unlike the three books that I read recently (A Dance with Dragons Part One: Dreams and Dust by George RR Martin, The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel S. Winter and Caliban’s War by James SA Corey (Review Soon). If you’re a fan of fantasy, as mentioned earlier, or have at one part in your life participated in fencing (I haven’t), then Sharps is the book for you.
First of all, Sharps is only a fantasy novel by courtesy - it takes place on a world that isn't quite our own, with cultures that are basically European (particularly Roman) but there is no actual fantastic element other than that. That's not a flaw, mind you - the worldbuilding hits all of the usual fantasy notes and the lack of magic is more than made up for by the details of the swordplay.
It's a rather twisty story - the point of view jumps around, but for most of the book the reader knows very little more than the characters, who are a fencing team nominally sent on a goodwill mission to the recently-defeated neighboring country. Things start to go wrong immediately, and it's clear that there are many people with many different motives attempting to use them to achieve their own political ends. This is very much a modern novel - the bankers are profoundly corrupt, the wars are pointless and driven by power-mad elite, everyone is flat broke and stuck with nothing but bad choices - and its cynicism feels very familiar to anyone who keeps up with the news these days.
The fencing itself - which doesn't happen nearly enough to suit me - is well-done and an excellent framework for a lot of the conflicts. It's used to highlight differences between the two countries, illuminate the emotional and interpersonal struggles of the various characters, and it's just plain fun. It's also not particularly technical while still sounding as if it's super-technical, which is a neat trick if you can pull it off.
The less-neat part of the book is its bog-standard fantasy Eurocentrism and male focus. Much is made of one or the other Empires (I could not ever keep them straight) being a visibly different race, probably Italianesque, but the standard of beauty is set by the blond northern barbarian, and if there are characters darker than "the color of blueberry just before its ripe" I didn't notice. There is one female character with more than a single scene, and she is not only consistently referred to as "a young girl" when she appears to be late teens at the youngest (only a few years younger than the "men") she is depicted as a constant whiner, an irritation, and of course a love interest for the most noble of the male characters.
Part of me wishes that the mysterious, pseudonymous Parker is actually a queer woman of color who is planning a huge reveal at some later date and all of the flaws in this book were intentional and ironic. But this is cynical age and I am its child, and I suspect this is just good ol' boy fiction at its dubious best. Sharps is probably an outstanding book if you are its primary audience; I lack the necessary equipment to fully appreciate it.
Отдавна си търсех някакъв историче��ки роман в който да има ренесансова фехтовка и макар това да е по-скоро историческо фентъзи мислех че ще е яко. Наистина, аспектът с фехтовката е доста сполучливо направен, личи си, че авторът разбира от нея. За съжаление обаче първо, самата фехтовка се случва доста нарядко в книгата и второ, всичко останало е яко боза.
Очевидно К.Дж.Паркър се е опитал да вдъхнови фентъзи-ренесансовия си свят и да го направи по-интересен, като по някакъв начин го направи по-близък до днешните разбирания и проблемите на съвременното общество и политика. Опитът му обаче е доста... изкушавам се да кажа малоумен, защото вместо да "вдъхнови" света си с тия идеи, авторът направо ги пренася с минимални промени - политика, разбирания, икономически, финансови и счетоводни, социални и философски практики и идеи, които ако наистина съществуваха там, неговия свят изобщо нямаше да е на равнището, на което го описва. Накратко, самата книга не звучи истински в света, който сама създава, което е голяма излагация за който и да е автор.
Отделно, всички тия идеи, за които говоря, са включени на доста първосигнално ниво, предназначено явно за тийн аудиторията (или за 20-30 годишни инфантилни милениали).
A very good story of intrigue and deception set in Parker's usual universe. Two kingdoms (Scheria and Permia) have been at war for decades until a fragile peace emerges (largely, because both sides are broke). To help facilitate the peace, a diplomatic mission of a troupe of fencers from Scheria goes on tour to Permia. The Permians are absolutely mad about fencing; something like a national sport, or football for Brazil. The fencing team is comprised not exactly by volunteers; each of the four has a tangled reason for being there. Putting together the team and then its journey in Permia constitute the bulk of the novel. Along the way, Parker does a deft job of character and world building.
While this seems rather straight forward, not everything is as it seems. Factions on both sides have desire and motivation to restart the war, and the team lurches from one unexpected event to another. Lots of twists and turns along the way as well. Perhaps my favorite Parker novel to date. 4.5 stars.
Great meditation on war, conflict and the uses of fighting on the same level as the brilliant Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks. The middle part is a little slow, but the ending and the resolutions are absolutely perfect and very satisfying.
SHARPS is a tale about several things, one way the author summarizes is “Sharps is rather more about the Arab Spring than the economy or the war, but just as elements of the war and the economy impinged on events in Egypt and Libya in real life, so in the book.”
It’s also perhaps a tale of fencing or as the author quotes it as “a conversation in steel”. Most reviewers who have read it have had fulsome praise for it. For me it’s a tale of people that are talented fencers but are sent on a mission of peace, warriors that have to use their martial skills to help broker peace between warring provinces lest ruin might touch both. It’s an inherent contradiction in terms of the characters and the plot that makes this book a good one and another excellent fable from the cunning mind of K.J. Parker.
The story begins in a meandering manner, wherein the author introduces all the main characters. And the lot is varied, a murderer, an ex-soldier, a son of a famous general and a couple of others. Amidst the introduction, the background situation is revealed through character dialogue as is the vogue seen in previous KJP novels.
From here on the story slowly unfolds as the reader is taken in to Permia along with the fencing party and slowly and surely the reader picks up on details regarding the war, character backgrounds and Permian-Scherian culture. The first part of the book has an uneven pace until the story reaches near the middle point wherein a few key events occur that shake up certain status quos and reveal what truly is at stake.
The pace then picks up and it is from here on that KJP’s cynicism and trademark dialogue flow to make the story reach a tumultuous but very much satisfying ending. The characterization of the book is the one thing that is the best piece of this entire story, as the reader will get to know these flawed but highly captivating characters that make you engrossed in the story without a care of the world outside.
What also helps is that each character is unique and interesting; they individually could power a singular story themselves and in KJP’s hands make the story intriguing beyond a doubt. Another excellent point about the book is the dialogue across several occasions while seeming focused on the events in the book has a very crucial subtext about human nature and the vagaries of life, war and history.
This book came very close to her previous work “The Folding Knife” which is an all-time favorite of mine because of the characterization and plot however TFK was a story wherein everything clicked. Not so much the case in this one as the uneven pace of the earlier half might hamper the read for some readers’ especially first time readers. I would very much request all virgin KJP readers to start with TFK just because I think it’s the epitome of her storytelling style.
“Sharps” is another excellent story from a devious mind and with it being given the requisite push from the publisher as well. It will only help KJP’s cause and perhaps spread the world among fantasy fans about one of the most under-appreciated fantasy writers of the 21st century. If you haven’t read any of her books, do so soon if you want something different in your current fantasy reads.
This was my first K.J. Parker book, and I think it will be the first of many that I'll read by him. I went right out and bought "The Company" after finishing this.
The story: five rag-tag professional fencers go on a tour of the country with which their homeland has had an on-again, off-again war. The idea is to mend fences (see what I did there?) because both countries are mad about the sport of fencing.
The first clue this motley crew has that things may not be what they seem is when they find that their luggage has been loaded with "sharps" (bladed weapons with an edge) instead of the safer fencing foils, which have no cutting edge.
The tour is rough. The country they are touring never uses foils, only sharps. They also do a street fighting style of bout with knives called Messers, which often end in serious injury. No one on the team has trained with Messers, except for one army veteran, and he's pretty messed up emotionally about the idea of fighting with them again. (hey-yo!)
Besides dealing with PTSD, a wily political officer who keeps disappearing when things get hairy, a very cranky young female fencer, the younger son of a brutal war hero, and a hapless young team member who's on the team because it beats rotting in prison, people start getting mysteriously assassinated along the fencing team's route, putting the team in danger and destabilizing the political situation. I confess it took me far too long to figure out exactly who was doing the mischief making here, but I was caught up in the story. Each character was distinct, flawed, and interesting, and there were a lot of balls in the air throughout the course of this book. Politically, there were several different factions, some pro-war, some anti-war, and it was difficult to figure out who was really pulling the strings.
This is a book that's got that dry British humor that I enjoy. Things are awful, yet somehow amusing at the same time. It's a bit like Bernard Conrwell's Sharp series, translated to a low fantasy setting. There's also a lot of action. I really enjoyed the ride and wanted to know what would happen next. I also cared about the characters, which can be difficult for an author to achieve in a humorous book. There's lots to be said in this book about the nature of war and the effect that it has on people.
My fourth KJ Parker in my recent exploration of his work, and an enjoyable read with small caveats.
Two adjacent countries are exhausted after decades of war. Both societies happen to be fanatical about fencing as a sport, with top practitioners being superstars. Despite continuing tensions between the countries a fencing team, comprised of the lead characters in the story, is sent from one country to the other as a sort of bridge building exercise. The fencers have been forced into this potentially difficult and dangerous trip, and from the start the team finds its journey eventful. It reminded me of a Cold War spy thriller in many ways. There’s intrigue, with strong political forces deviously pulling strings in the two countries and manipulating the trip. Who can the lead characters trust? Probably no one from your own country, or in the host country, or even any of your travelling companions for the trip!
I’m still a Parker fan, but I’m learning he’s more varied than I thought from my first couple of reads in which there was a strong, though cynical, strand of humour. We once again have a magic free, pre-industrial world but this time without prominent humour though neither is it that dark or grim. It also includes well defined, interesting, lead characters though there’s only one, not especially prominent, female lead.
The story is clever, and unexpected twists keep you guessing. The storyline is strong enough for you to care how it’ll all end. My caveats? There’s a key moment where a conspiratorial character says ‘We must stop this - my sources say X is definitely going to happen here but I don’t know how or by who’. I thought it a rather clumsy plot device. There is a feeling as the plot moves along that the lead characters, though well drawn, have little control on the flow of the story and are caught up helplessly in events and other people’s conspiracies. Though, to be fair, this isn’t the case for the main climax.
I think 3.5* for the plot and 4.5* for the writing (a strong reason for reading KJ Parker) which does keep you reading even during what I perceived as the occasional plot deficiency.
3 & 1/2 stars, rounded up. A very entertaining book. No deep philosophical discussions of high minded ideas, just interesting characters in a fully imagined culture and world with a plot that had just enough action and twists and turns to hold your interest throughout the story. I found some of the changes of the point of view be occasionally confusing which I imagine may or may not be worse in an Audible format, depending on how well the narrator was able to distinguish between the various, different characters. This book reminded me of some of Sebastian De Castell's books due to both the wry humor and emphasis on swordplay. Recommended to anyone looking for a enjoyable (if occasionally bloody) action yarn.
Sharps was my introduction to K.J. Parker, and if it's not his best then I have a lot to look forward to.
Decaying empires, political intrigue, Machiavellian monks, complex characters, and lots and lots of fencing! Parker is a master wordsmith- I know I'm going to stick with an author if I lose count of the number of times I stop at a sentence and say, "Man, I wish I had written that." After a few edge-of-your-seat passages that detail fencing methods and movements, I wouldn't be surprised if he were a master swordsman as well.
I've joined the ranks of Parkerian fandom. Fortunately for me, he's got a wide body of work.
I like the world, I like the characters, I like the plot. I found the structure and rythm of the story a little janky, like driving down a road with too many sleeping policemen (speed bumps) on it. I liked the female character quite a bit and was hoping for more from her but it turns out she was just your typical troubled teen (not a teen) who just needed the love of a good man. Worth the read and enough to keep me interested in this alternate world.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
A mismatched group of reluctant fencers is sent on a goodwill tour through a conquered neighbour. They find that not only must they fight with un-bated swords, they're not at all up to their putative purpose, and no one seems to care.
When I first ran across K. J Parker, through his (we now know) Fencer trilogy, I was thrilled. Here was someone doing something decidedly different and interesting, rather than just regurgitating Tolkien. It's interesting, because I hadn't enjoyed Tom Holt (Parker's real name) much. I raced through the Fencer trilogy, the less good Scavenger series, the equally good Engineer trilogy. But in the stand-alone books, I started to bog down.
The Hammer, The Company, The Folding Knife, the trilogies - the fact is that they're all essentially the same. Parker makes the comparison easier by insisting on the use of generics - the Empire, the Bank, the Company, all similar bodies set in an indeterminate universe that may or may not overlap, but easily could. The characters are all very similar - well-intentioned, clumsy types who make a mess of things when they mean to do well, and do well by accident. They do barbaric, grotesque things as a matter of course, usually presented as obligatory for fairly vague reasons. The central theme of each book - usually captured in the title - is a metaphor pounded relentlessly into each scene, and molded to fit every circumstance.
It's a formula that worked very well, for a while. With Sharps, though, it's starting to feel very much as if Parker has run his course. The writing remains excellent, but there's no real variation in approach. Parker has very much become a one-note song, and you can tell from page one pretty much how things are going to go. It's well done, but it's not interesting.
Other writers have done the same thing, of course - Jack Vance used and re-used a relatively small cast of characters; Patricia McKillip's novels all tend toward the same dreamy, romantic tone. The difference is that they managed to make each repetition enthralling. I read their books not so much for the plot as because I enjoy the journey. Parker, for all his technical skill, has missed the trail, and is into his third or fourth time around the same loop.
For all that, Sharps is well done. It's built with the same careful skill as Parker's other books - the same attention to detail, the same verisimilitude, the same well-drawn characters, the same clever dialogue, the same small incident that grows in importance as we see it from more angles. In fact, it would be an excellent book, if it weren't exactly the same as all his others.
I don't give up easily. I still have hopes Parker will do something new and do it well. Maybe that's his new serial, Two of Swords. For the time being, though, I think I'll wait until it's complete and reconsider it then.
If you're new to Parker's work, I highly recommend Sharps. It's a clever, well-written, unusual fantasy with a lot of interesting elements. If you've read his other work, this is more of the same - determinedly so. You'll have to judge for yourself whether you're tiring of the same old trick, no matter how well done.
After a long and brutal war, a truce has been called between two neighboring kingdoms. There is finally a chance for peace as diplomatic talks begin. To help facilitate this new peace, there is going to be a fencing tour with the shared love of a sport bringing two previously warring kingdoms together. The ragtag group of Scherian fencers making up the tour will have to learn to work together if they want to make it home from Permia in one piece and not begin another war.
First and foremost, the main reason I picked this book up was for the fencing. While the entire novel is great, the fencing is the best part. It's what the entire story revolves around. The title refers to fencing with sharp weapons - very real and dangerous weapons that can do serious damage.
Our team realizes pretty quickly that in Permia, people don't use foils and the like in fencing - they use actual swords and knives - only small children use foils while practicing. As you can imagine, that changes the game real quick since that means our champions have to think about the sport in an entirely new way. I also appreciated the story's political intrigue and sabotage almost as much as I found myself interested in the fencing. Our main characters, this ragtag team is quite intriguing. Each member of the team gets plenty of screen time and we get to know them a good deal from their background to their motivations. None of them are exactly "good guys" or "heroes", but they are certainly engaging.
If you want a great epic fantasy novel with lots of fencing and action, Sharps by K.J. Parker is definitely for you. If you also can't get enough of political intrigue and sabotage in a well developed world populated by fascinating characters, you're in for a real treat.
Consummate craftsmanship laced with the driest mirth. This is perhaps closer to a quest narrative than Parker's other works, but like those other works it's too original, too mature to be classed as genre fantasy. In many ways, closer to the tradition of Dostoevsky than of Tolkien. Refreshingly, you never have the sense that a certain character is bound to triumph because they're the hero, that the whole book is lurching towards a telegraphed outcome.
The central images here are the messer - an inelegant weapon incongruously used for sporting exhibition - and the flooding of a city, many years before the book's plot begins but half-echoed throughout it, in the fall of blood across a fencer's forehead, or the rush of a crowd into an empty street. These shapes are worked into the characters' psychologies as fully as Woolf's line on the canvas or Ballard's angular automobile geometry. That psychology is the central cog here: Parker offers us characters whose motivations are human - the most heroic characters have selfish sides, the most noxious have nobility in their ideals, and the whole is a convincing tapestry of the mechanics of morality.
The allegories are undisguised; the parallels with the realworld banking collapse and the bloody revolutions in the Arab Spring are bravely drawn. And while Parker's trilogies sometimes suffer from an anxious overflow of events towards the end, this standalone novel is as smartly engineered as a foldaway camping stove; as precise as the edge of a rapier.
"The point is, there's nothing, absolutely nothing that any of us wouldn't do, if we had to. If you say otherwise, you're kidding yourself. You can talk all day about right and wrong and good and evil; all it means is you haven't yet come up against the situation where you've got to do it, you haven't any choice." -- Suidas Deutzel.
Finally finished! After loving KJ Parker's Engineer Trilogy, I was delighted to find Sharps at the Library. I know about nothing about fencing, but figured it's KJ Parker, so I gave it a shot.
This book took me awhile to get into. I was worried with all of the character introductions that I didn't know who was where, why they mattered, and I surely didn't think I'd be able to keep track of them all. I almost gave up, but I always try my best to finish books that I've started, so I pushed the worries out of my mind and kept reading.
Basically, in Sharps, a fencing team is sent from one country to a country that they had recently been at war with. The idea was that the show of good faith would bring about peace, but it would seem that other people had different ideas about what their function was.
The book had plenty of laughs. The fencing, I assume was all accurate. Even though I don't know anything about fencing, I was always looking forward to the fencing scenes. I liked the characters and thought they were mostly well balanced in terms of screen time. I must say I don't quite get the point of reading from some of the officials (there were only a few scenes with them and it was a lot of stuff we already knew, I felt).
Overall, I enjoyed the story, but at times it felt like work to read. Which sounds bad, but it's probably because I read too much YA.
Very enjoyable. This was my first KJ Parker book and I don't know why. It's very much the sort of non-magical, politics and intrigue type of fantasy I prefer. The writing is excellent, and it's the sort of story where you can read 50 pages, realize not much has actually happened, and yet it wasn't slow or boring at all. The ending was--while not bad--not quite as dramatic as one might have hoped, and for that reason I'm only giving it 4 stars, but I'll definitely be reading more from this author in the future. I've already picked up a couple of things.
One of the very first martial arts I developed an interest in was fencing. I remember watching the 1993 Disney version The Three Musketeers, starring a very young Chris O'Donnell and Kiefer Sutherland, and absolutely adoring the action depicted onscreen: sword-blades flashing quicksilver-bright as thrusts and counter-thrusts were delivered, all mingled with witty retorts and daring escapes. To be sure, a lot of the action wasn't entirely period-accurate (the movie owes a lot to Hong Kong action movies in terms of visuals), but it was enough to lead me to Dumas' original text, which I read over and over again throughout high school - usually when I ought to have been reading things like The Catcher in the Rye (I cannot count the number of times I've imagined Athos slapping Holden across the mouth for being too whiny). I still go back to read the novel every so often, revisiting my favorite moments and scenes when I need some quick mental decompression.
Perhaps as a result of the prevalence of The Three Musketeers in all its forms, it's been difficult not to think of it when one reads about fencing in books, or sees it in movies. It's also very likely that a lot of writers have Dumas' book at some point in time, and so find themselves influenced by it. However, a good writer who writes about fencing will do his or her level best to avoid copying Dumas' work or characters. Not all succeed, of course, but those who do are incredibly fun to read. A personal favorite of mine is Arturo Pérez-Reverte, who wrote (and is still writing) the Captain Alatriste series of novels, set in Spain at more or less the same time as The Three Musketeers. Captain Alatriste is not, however, merely a copy of The Three Musketeers set in Spain, mostly because it is a far darker, far grittier rendering of the period - a testament to the fact that Pérez-Reverte was a war correspondent for a while before settling down to become a novelist.
Since I discovered Pérez-Reverte's books, however, I stopped finding interesting fencing novels. I suspect that it mostly had to do with the increase in popularity of wuxia films and the increased interest in Eastern martial arts. I suspect this has to do with the seeming "impracticality" of fencing, which, given how it's portrayed in the movies, comes as no surprise, albeit unfortunate.
When I stumbled across K.J. Parker's novel Sharps, however, I was more than happy to pick it up. Parker has quite the reputation as a capital novelist, and though I hadn't read any of her/his books (no one knows Parker's gender; s/he is pulling something of a Salinger at the moment), I viewed Sharps as an opportunity to experience her/his writing before dedicating myself to her/his longer works like The Fencer Trilogy (more fencing, yay!) and The Engineer Trilogy.
Fortunately, Sharps has proven to be quite the fun read, and as unlike The Three Musketeers as a fencing novel can get. This, it must be said, is a very, very good thing.
One thing one must remember about The Three Musketeers is that it's a rather light-hearted story - in particular if one hasn't quite read the novel and has focused only on the first half of the novel, dealing with the theft and recovery of Queen Anne's necklace. I suppose the reason why this part get portrayed in film so often is because it has romance, action, intrigue, and, to a degree, a happy ending that separates it from the darker, more depressing content of the second half of the novel.
This is not the case in Sharps. To be sure, there are certain parallels, but a lot of Sharps - an overwhelming lot of it - is very different from The Three Musketeers, beginning with the characters. At the core of the novel is a group of five characters: Suidas Deutzel, a three-time fencing champion; Aduluscentulus "Addo" Carnufex, the son of an important military general; Iseutz Bringas, the daughter of minor nobility; Giraut Bryennius, a banker's son; and Jilem Phrantzes, a former fencing champion and long since retired from the scene. They form the "national team" of their home country, Scheria, and are being sent on to the neighboring country of Permia (which was once at war with Scheria) as part of a "peace mission" involving matches between Scheria's best fencers and Permia's best, since everyone in Permia is crazy about Scherian fencing.
On the surface, all of this makes sense, and doesn't seem suspicious in the least. But as the story progresses, it becomes very obvious that something's going on underfoot, and nothing - and no one - is quite what it seems, or who he or she says they are.
That's one of the interesting things about this novel: the characters are all unreliable narrators. The narrative style of the novel is mostly in third-person limited, and it does a lot of jumping around amongst the characters, giving the protagonists, and a few of the supporting characters, a chance to speak up. Despite this, however, it's difficult to figure out who is telling the truth and who isn't, because for the most part they're lying not only to the reader, but to themselves, as well. There are also a lot of moments wherein the reader is aware of the narrator's gender, but cannot identify who the narrator is, precisely, until at some later point in the novel when everything begins to come together and all the clues finally begin to make sense.
The characters themselves are interesting, for the most part - especially since none of them want to be on the team in the first place, except for Iseutz. The beginning of the novel primarily concerns itself with explaining how certain members got onto the team in the first place:
Another interesting thing is that the characters are far from the most normal. Right from the get-go, the reader will be drawn to Suidas: a former soldier and extremely talented fencer, who has been given the dubious honor of being team captain. For the most part he comes off as capable, if impatient and rude at times, but with undercurrents of cunning that don't really come out until much later - and it's those undercurrents of cunning that I appreciate the most about him. The rest of it seems a little contrived, , but it works in the context of the story so it's not so bad.
Giraut is also interesting, if only because he feels like a regular person caught up in extraordinary circumstances. His initial portrayal as the spoiled son of a wealthy banker eventually comes apart, revealing him to be a coward and something of an idiot, incapable of truly understanding what's going on around him, but it's those flaws that make him interesting - to me, anyway. He's actually refreshingly normal as a character: neither heroic nor extremely intelligent, more prone to scratching his head in confusion than actually comprehending what he's just done or what's going on. The only thing he has really going for him is his extraordinary luck: pretty much everyone gets really badly hurt in the course of the novel, but Giraut makes it through with minimal injuries. That luck, of course, can be a little irritating at times, because it feels a little too much like deus ex machina, but it's really the only way a guy like Giraut can make it through this entire story to the very end. In a slasher flick, he would be the character the audience thinks will be the first one dead, but turns out to be the sole survivor.
Iseutz is confusing, to say the least. The "sob story" that lands her in this team of misfits is pretty typical: . Upon first encountering her, it's possible that the reader would want nothing more than to gag her, or stab her so she finally shuts up: she's the whiniest, most irritating female character I've ever come across in a long while. There are times when the reader may be tempted to run her through the mouth with her own sword , but it becomes clear later on that, while Iseutz's whining is incredibly irritating to both the characters and the reader, her complaints have a point; it's just that the way she voices them makes it difficult to like her. In truth, she's the least easiest of the characters to really like, and this can be rather troubling for readers - such as myself - who like reading about female characters who do not fall into that pit of "whining nagger." Some of that feeling may be cleared up towards the middle of the novel, or it may not. Either way, Iseutz is not likely to win many fans, which is unfortunate for a novel like this and for a character with so much potential.
And then there is Addo. At first he seems quite colorless, , but he becomes a bit more interesting as the novel progresses - especially once he takes everything in hand himself, because . During the very first part of the story he doesn't stand out much, but later on he comes into his own, and he makes for a pretty good character - . He can be easy to glance over at times, but that's part of what makes him an enjoyable character to read about: so much about him is unexpected. He does, however, suffer from some deus ex machina as well: all of his talents are commonly brushed off as being expected, because he's his father's son. .
Finally, there's Phranztes: the sorriest character in this entire novel. It's easy to pity him: at his age he ought to be settling down to a quiet life with his new wife, but is unable to do so because he has to deal with this fiasco. . He does, however, have the advantage of being a character the reader can immediately like: it's easy to sympathize with his plight, and his characterization isn't as polarizing as Iseutz's or maybe Giraut's. In many ways he draws the reader into the misfit team, acting as a center upon which the reader may rest when all the other characters drive one up the wall.
As for the plot, well, that's where the real fun of this novel lies. It's pretty clear to the reader early on in the novel that something's going on, and whatever it is, it's not going to be pleasant. There's discontent and mysterious machinations going on in the high circles of politics in both Permia and Scheria, because someone wants the war to start all over again. Certain factions - the same ones that sent the team to Permia in the first place - are trying their hardest to prevent the war, but they can only sit on their hands, and hope that all goes well. The unraveling of the mystery is incredibly well done: there were quite a few unexpected twists, particularly towards the end. There are hints and clues scattered throughout the first two-thirds of the novel, and it's really up to the reader to figure out how they fit together. It's been a while since I encountered a plot as thick with intrigue as this, and I'm very pleased to have found it - I certainly didn't find it in The Three Musketeers, that's for sure.
And now that I mention The Three Musketeers, there's one other thing that this novel does better than Dumas' work: describing fencing. This can be a point of frustration or a point of fascination for the reader, but it must be said that Parker is to be congratulated for using proper fencing terms in this novel. It will likely take some research to get all the terms right (I know I did), but there's a sense of satisfaction to be had when one knows what "demi-volte" means, or what measures have to do with stabbing one's opponent.
Overall, Sharps is a ridiculously fun story, at least in terms of its plot: the twists and turns can be unexpected, and the fencing is impeccably described. The characters are pretty interesting, too, but do have some flaws that might be deal-breakers for some readers, or which might not matter if the reader is willing to ignore them. Iseutz, in particular, is problematic, but this may be because I myself prefer a particular type of female character, and Iseutz does not fit into that mold as perfectly as I want her to. This appears to be the type of novel that a reader can enjoy, nor not enjoy, according to his or her own preferences, and it really does take reading it to figure that out.