No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

#46: The Company -- K J Parker

... as long as 'A' Company was still alive and together, as long as the five of them were together, the war could never end. It was part of them, their core, their reason, what they were for; they kept it alive and it kept them alive, which was why it, they, had lasted so long, against all the odds. 'A' Company could no more die in war than a fish could drown in the sea. (p. 344)

Parker's first stand-alone novel -- previously s/he (the publicity material indicates a female author, but there is something masculine about the style) has committed the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies -- is distinctly Parker and yet oddly disappointing.

The war is over. General Teuche Kunessin ('the most devastating fighting man on either side of the war') returns to his homeland, intent on reuniting his comrades and fulfilling the dream that kept them alive: the colonisation of an abandoned island, which he's ensured will not be of interest to the military. There'd been six of them, but one died right at the end of the war. (The Company is, as much as anything, a thriller about how the sixth man, Nuctos, died.) The remaining veterans, despite their arguments and objections, all leap at the opportunity. Supplies (including wives) are acquired. Sphoe is colonised: and turns out to have rather more resources than they'd been expecting.

As ever, Parker's eye for the gritty realities of a (pseudo)medieval society is impressive. When Kunessin was a boy, his family fell on hard times, because a battle was fought on their field, leaving a harvest of corpses: we can't bury them all, not in time. Can't burn them: there's not enough timber in the valley to fire this lot ... They'll start to rot, and they'll breed worms and flukes: the stock'll pick them up and they'll die. ... It'll be three years, soonest, before this land's fit to be grazed again. (p. 63) And Parker's a master at showing what's said and what's not -- the male characters, in particular, are masterfully drawn as men who'd sooner die than talk out loud about emotions, but nevertheless very clearly have and are driven by said emotions -- and at showing us the world through an individual's eyes, slanted and skewed with their perspective. Kunessin sees the sun 'slanting down over the roofs ... like a shower of pitched-up arrows'. Aidi analyses the profit and loss of each transaction. Menin has a sharp eye for nature's bounty.

In a series of flashbacks, we slowly discover how Kunessin amassed the fortune that enabled him to buy Sphoe, a ship, supplies. There are other flashbacks, illuminating the pasts of the other colonists: early on we discover that a couple of the wives have secrets in their pasts. All rumour and conjecture of course, nothing ever proved. And -- in a quintessentially and aggravatingly Parker twist -- there's an account of the betrayal of Nuctos, carefully crafted using only the third-person pronoun. It's several hundred pages before we can put a name to the viewpoint character of that section, and I cannot help but feel that this is cheating.

'A' Company ('the biggest bunch of underachievers the world had ever seen') are connected by more than chance: they've survived years of war together, and the sense of 'us against the rest of the world' -- something darker and more codependent than mere camaraderie -- is one of the strongest threads in the novel. Given that focus, the finale is successful, but it feels hasty and unfinished, as though there might be more going on than a bunch of soldiers surviving against all odds.

Overall: very much enjoyed, not least for Parker's dry humour and the careful construction of plot and backstory, and for another fantasy in which there's no magic, no music and beauty only in the eye of the beholders.


  1. And -- in a quintessentially and aggravatingly Parker twist -- there's an account of the betrayal of Nuctos, carefully crafted using only the third-person pronoun.

    Interesting -- I thought the use of one particular word was a dead giveaway and, indeed, it turned out to be the person I thought it was. I'm not actually sure whether Parker intended the ultimate revelation of that person's identity to be a surprise or not.

  2. Hmm, am intrigued! Which word? (You are clearly more alert than me.)

    I think the pronoun trick is getting old, but I'm convinced it's intended to add a layer of mystery.

  3. "Checkmate, he decided" (205).

    It stood out because of the chess scene not long before that.

    The thing is, there are other scenes where you don't find out whose perspective you're in immediately, or where you think you're in one person's perspective and it turns out to be somebody else; which is why I wasn't sure whether or not it was a deliberate giveaway.

  4. Yep, I think you're right about that being a hint. It's still a fairly subtle one (the chess scene is 50 or 60 pages earlier). And it does remind me of instances of the technique in the Engineer trilogy, as well as elsewhere in this novel.

  5. It's probably fair to say it seemed more obvious to me because I basically read the book in a sitting, so "50 pages earlier" means "about an hour ago". Huzzah for long-haul flights. :)