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

Thursday, October 14, 2010

2010/74: The Folding Knife -- K J Parker

"I think that if someone tried to rob you in the street, you'd pick his pocket, sell him a better knife and probably offer him a job as a tax collector."
Basso raised an eyebrow. "I choose to take that as a compliment." (p. 353)

Bassianus Arcadius Severus -- Basso to his friends, of whom he has few -- is notorious for his luck: not that it's all good, but that it all works, eventually, in his favour. Not necessarily in the favour of friends, family, country: but Basso seems a born survivor.

Basso's life story -- arranged marriage, a job in a bank, children, adultery, murder, political rise, legal reform and eventual retreat -- plays out in a world that's reminiscent of Ancient Rome. (If my classical history was better, I could probably name some of Parker's inspirations.) The Vesani Republic mirrors Roman culture and society. The Mavortine Confederacy (nineteen tribes, some nomadic, very loosely linked by an expired alliance) has been thoroughly subjugated. The Eastern Empire was once a substantial threat: now it's nearly a millennium past its prime. It's time to do a little empire-building ...

Though The Folding Knife is marketed as a fantasy novel, there isn't any magic in it; no fantastical beasts, no gods, no spells. It could be argued that Basso's luck is preternatural: it could even be argued that the eponymous knife -- which Basso inherits from his mother, who acquires it on the day of his birth from a woman who tries to rob her -- bestows some arcane protection, or glamour, or fortune upon the bearer. (The first scene of the novel is Basso's loss of the knife. The rest of the novel explains why this matters.)

Parker's writing captivates me, as usual. It's intelligent, sardonic and vivid, awash with detail and alive with dialogue. (Though, yes, there's still an over-reliance on personal pronouns, the elision of a few key facts, and some apparently out-of-character behaviour that only makes sense if the reader adopts an almost paranoid perspective.) A lot of plot is packed into this single-volume story, some of it so tightly compressed that it's easy to miss. The tagline on the cover is 'Even great men make mistakes': it's inevitable that the reader will be watching out for the single terminal mistake that's implied by the blurb. I'm not sure if it's the mistake about his sister, or an oversight regarding a military man, that's more terminal: I'm not sure if the latter is a mistake at all. Basso, after all, frequently claims to be stupid but is generally considered to be very clever indeed: if he didn't spot the inconsistency that I spotted, maybe it's not there. Or maybe it's easily explicable. But, as Basso repeatedly reminds us, 'there's always another reason'.

Parker has a knack for portraying credible, dysfunctional relationships: Basso, though essentially a solitary man, is revealed by his relationship with his estranged sister, the tragically-misnamed Tranquillina (a.k.a. Placidia, in at least one early reference); his nephew Bassano, who's almost too good to be true; Aelius, a career soldier born in the Mavortine Confederacy and all too happy to make war against it; Antigonus, the slave who teaches Basso the basics of economics.

I'm not wholly satisfied by the finale: it seems hasty. But I suspect that all the necessary material, all the clues, are there -- have been there from the first chapter -- and that, for once, it's Basso who hasn't seen it coming.

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