At the close of The Belly of the Bow (1999), Bardas Loredan had just committed an unforgivable crime – a sin of the kind that, traditionally, begets Furies and divine vengeance (and phrases like ‘a Use of Weapons for the fantasy genre’). The conclusion of the trilogy, then, surely features Fate knocking on the door, and subsequently the head, of the offender. Right?
It’s not that simple: The Proof House is not your regular heroic fantasy. This is a world whose ecology is mercifully free of elves and dragons. The gods, if not yet dead, must be hiding, since no one believes in them any more. The heroes – like Bardas Loredan, whose claim to fame in this concluding volume is that he’s survived the collapse of a siege tunnel – are only too ready to tell you that it could’ve been anyone.
Magic? Well, there’s the Principle, which teaches (rather like Time Travel 101) that there’s one right and proper way for history to go. If anyone attempts to use the Principle to change the course of events, history becomes self-adjusting and generates a coherent, if not comfortable, alternative route to a logically-equivalent conclusion. (Does it matter, in the long run, which city falls, or which man dies?) Way back in Colours in the Steel (1998), someone set a curse on Bardas Loredan: the wrong curse. Everything that’s happened to him, his family, his former secretary and his business associates can be traced back – albeit tortuously – to that mistake. If it was a mistake…
Actually, there’s more than a tinge of the conspiracy to this trilogy. Alexius the Patriarch, well-meaning originator of the wrong curse, is convinced that it’s all his fault, and spends the rest of the trilogy attempting to make amends. Bardas’ sister Niessa, with a lifetime’s experience of manipulating family, friends and colleagues, has an entirely separate agenda. Their brother Gorgas has always had Bardas’ well-being and happiness at heart, sometimes beyond all reason: an unsettling case of brotherly love that’s definitely too much of a good thing.
Freud would have found, in the Loredans, extensive material for a study of the dysfunctional family. K J Parker’s characterisation is subtle enough that the Loredans’ behaviour is simultaneously shocking and convincing: not an easy feat when the characters in question are borderline sociopaths whose family motto might well be a reversal of the old saw about being cruel to be kind. They’re the real (anti) heroes of the trilogy – as much instruments of Fate as they’re its victims.
Colours in the Steel used the metaphor of a sword being tempered in fire: The Belly of the Bow described the strength that comes from being under pressure, like the wood in the inner curve of a bow. Bardas Loredan’s ‘promotion’ takes him, as overseer, to the proof house, where armour is tested to destruction for weak points and flaws. In amongst the exhaustively detailed descriptions of every stage of manufacture, there’s plenty of room for metaphor and allegory – and for chillingly prosaic battlefield scenes (mud, blood and folly) which reveal more than a passing acquaintance with military history.
This was never the sort of trilogy that would end with everything neatly wrapped up, married off or killed: there are plenty of unresolved threads to tease the mind long after the book’s been closed. The Proof House is a fitting and unpredictable conclusion to the trilogy, executed with enough artistry, humour and intelligence to set it apart from the summer crop of fantasy epics.