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

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Company -- K J Parker

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in Spring 2009.

.. 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.

K. J. 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 published the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies – is distinctly Parker in its focus on the military, the practical, the psychological: and yet it's 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 from 'A' Company 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. And Parker's a master at showing what's said and what's not – the male characters, in particular, are 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, coloured 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.

The Company, though flawed, is an enjoyable read, 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.

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