Saturday, 26 June 2010

K J Parker; The Folding Knife

Earlier in this blog I complained about the way that a writer you like can bring out a book in hardback and then the publisher leaves you waiting for an unconscionable time before you can get the book in a comfortably readable size. The only reason it's annoying is that it's always irritating to wait for something once you know it exists.

Parker's publishers managed to take me by surprise with The Folding Knife, which appeared out of nowhere in Chapters in Wednesday when I was killing time before going to see MacGruber. Her last book, The Company, came out in hardback, and then in annoying size paperback, and the wait for it come out in handy sized was so long that I cracked and bought the awkward size. It's since shrunk twice, but the whole process took something like two years. For contrast, I hadn't even known The Folding Knife existed till I saw it, already in the smallest size it's likely to be.

Parker then took me somewhat by surprise by not making it as grim as her work usually is. Which is not to say that her protagonist gets a happy ending; as usual with Parker's protagonists, by the end of the narrative, he's lost everything and everybody that mattered to him, despite extraordinary guile and sagacity. But at least he's alive and has some prospect of a shabbily genteel retirement, which is a huge improvement on most of her outcomes; The Company ended with pretty much everyone dead, and arguably better off that way. The less said about how things turn out for the cast of the Fencer, Pattern and Engineer trilogies, the better.

Parker's now written three trilogies and two stand alone novels, all characterised by grim outcomes, pragmatic but doomed protagonists and a beguiling preoccupation with the practical implementation of ingenious schemes. The Folding Knife is definitely her most lighthearted work to date, for all that it ends grimly. It's oddly paced, as though it had begun in her mind as something much longer and then she had realised that there wasn't as much in it as she'd hoped. I get the feeling that she had blocked in quite a lot of the early life of her main character before she realised that the main action was going to be quite tight, and that she didn't have the heart to go back and reorganise the first act to get it into a more sensible balance with the pace of the rest of the book. That's honestly the only criticism I can point at it. For the rest, it's well written, sharply observed and full of the clever descriptions of well executed schemes which lie at the heart of Parker's appeal to me.

The book gives us the life and times of Basso, who becomes the first citizen of a medieval city state in the kind of generically non-magical fantasy world that Parker prefers. The Republic of Vesani appears to be based loosely on a less evolved version of Venice. As a writer, Parker seems to be happiest working in worlds which are not real, but are not really very different from reality; there are no magical wizards or weird races or any of the usual trappings of fantasy land, and the governmental arrangements are hard headed analogues of things which have worked in real life. She seems to prefer a time before gunpowder and organised science, but not too long before they arrived; in Parker's world, it always feels like a very well run and tidy version of the 1300s.

Somehow, it always seems to work. The great strength of her books is the wry authorial tone; her viewpoint characters tend to be urbane and witty, and probably more self-aware than real people, but when it's done well that's no crime and Parker does it well.

Basso is a typical Parker mastermind, blessed with the happy insight that it's a foolish mastermind who makes enemies; either ensure that your scheme obliterates the competition or make sure they think that it's all gone better for them than it has for you. And so he rises from hanging around the edge of a failed bank his incompetent father buys (in the latest of a sequence of "best deals I've ever made") to the financial colossus of his city and thus inevitably to First Citizen. Along the way, every move in his financial and political dealings is perfect economic judo; his political policies help his bank, his banking policies help his politics, and because you always want the customers to come back, everyone else comes out a little bit ahead as well. The descriptions of each successive machination are carried off with tremendous elegance; Parker excels in packing the exposition into a nutshell so that what ought to a dry and boring plot is entertaining. Of course, you know it all has to end badly, because the book opens with a prologue which is obviously an epilogue in which Basso has been brought down; the only puzzle for the reader is how the endless lucky streak will finally fail. And structurally, that failure is a little disappointing because much of the emotional weight of the book has been carried by the enmity between Basso and his sister; the dramatically satisfying outcome would resolve that enmity, but it's left hanging as Basso finally legs it, his comeuppance having been delivered by something which hasn't been set up quite well enough. In the Engineer trilogy, Parker carefully meshed together an insanely meticulous plot in which it took three books and the end of the world to resolve a doomed love story; such was complexity of the whole thing that it genuinely couldn't have been pulled of satisfactorily in less space.

And that brings me back to the pacing problem, because the resolution feels rushed compared to the set up. It's not often that I read a book wishing it had been longer, but with the Folding Knife I really did wish for more. I suspect that Folding Knife could have done with a second volume. Basso's so much fun to be around that the extra length would have passed agreeably, and it would have allowed for a more satisfying resolution of all the elements in play.

Still, it was as much fun in a book as I've had in the last few months, so I'm not complaining.

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