There was no defence. If you tried to block, you needed both hands; you'd mutilate yourself for life, and you could only do it once. So: no defence. Instead there was attacking and avoiding, ideally at the same time, so that in escaping your opponent's attack, you formed and forwarded your own. That, he realised was the difference, and the reason why he'd done so badly at Joiauz. You couldn't just endure. It was pure aggression. "Welcome to the messer," Suidas said, as they halted to catch their breath. "You can't protect yourself. Your only way out is to kill the other man." [location 2689]
Permia and Scheria have been at war, on and off, for years. At the opening of Sharps an uneasy peace prevails, not least because a Scherian general (codename: the Irrigator) drowned an entire Permian city. Now, forty years later, the two countries -- both plagued by economic recession, civil unrest, and religious extremism -- maintain a cold-war policy of mutual, begrudging tolerance.
Let the Games begin!
Four skilled individuals are chosen to make up a Scherian fencing team, which will tour Permia and pave the way for the resumption of diplomatic relations. Not that they actually have to do any diplomacy themselves, which is probably for the best... Phrantzes, the team's manager, is a ageing fencing champion; Suidas is a veteran of the wars, suffering from PTSD and self-medicating with alcohol; Giraut got caught with a senator's daughter, and ended up killing the senator; Iseutz, the sole woman on the team, has flatly refused to marry; and Addo, perhaps the most skilled fencer of them all, happens to be the son of the Irrigator. Oh, and there's Yvo Tzimisces, the political officer, who might've stepped straight out of a Le Carre novel. (Tzimisces is my favourite character. He has class.)
They're all very popular in Permia (Parker's depiction of fencer fandom is delicious): but they're expected to fight with messers, rather than rapiers. The messer is basically a large knife, designed to inflict maximum damage: a far cry from the buttoned foils and blunted longswords of competitive swordplay. ("It's like ten centuries of scientific fencing hadn't happened," says Suidas sadly. [loc. 2701]) The messer is also a metaphor, hence the novel's title (and the excerpt above). They're fighting with sharps, no holds barred: and the opponent isn't necessarily the other fencer, or a Permian, or an enemy.
And, as though there weren't already sufficient ingredients for disaster, it turns out that someone on the team has an extra page to their agenda. This agenda may include assassination, treachery or vengeance: or, of course, all of the above.
Parker's earlier novels / trilogies tended to focus on a single protagonist. The Engineer trilogy had several protagonists, whose stories wove together to further the broader plot. Sharps, by contrast, has an ensemble cast: five individuals who are constantly interacting, share an apparent goal and have similar cultural backgrounds. (Several of them are also connected by the 'folly pillar, complete with a lavishly paid pretend stylite to sit on top of it' [loc. 1915], purchased by one of Addo's ancestors.) The fact that none of them can be trusted as narrators, viewpoint characters or even sportsmen is beside the point: the relationships that form and fracture reveal motives and feelings that are otherwise unexplored.
As usual with Parker's novels, Sharps is darkly humorous, intricately plotted, and full of surprises. There's less of the obfuscation-by-pronoun; the women get a better deal (though there is still at least one nagging wife too many); nobody gets turned into a weapon, though to be fair most of them are weapons already, one way or another. And there's no magic: this is not so much a sword'n'sorcery novel as sword'n'spying.
Incidentally, Sharps is set in the same world as The Folding Knife and the Engineer trilogy: there are mentions of the Aram Chantat, the Invincible Sun and the Mezentine Empire. However, it's clearly later in the history of that world: Scheria and Permia have an eighteenth-century feel, though I might have been misled by the props.