Parker goes on bucking the system with yet another stand alone novel in a world full of ten volume trilogies. Sharps is a good read; it's dogma in these parts that Parker can do no wrong, so we will pass briskly over that heretical thought and consider the possibility that just occasionally she can do less than wonderfully. This is not as clean and crisp a piece of work as her other standalone novels, but it's only when I go back over my notes on the last two that I realise what a big move it is from her normal structures.
Parker, as I've mentioned before, is fond of big complicated plots which are being driven by a single protagonist who pushes everything else to get his own completely unforeseeable way. Sharps has a big complicated plot running through it, but for the first time ever, her characters have no idea what's going on. This is a nice change of tack for Parker, but it's not negotiated as well as it might be. There's not much she could have done to make that better; she tells the story through her viewpoint characters, none of whom ever figure what was really supposed to be happening, and so inevitably, the reader ends the books sharing their sense of confused bewilderment, and indeed their sense of mild relief that they're not all dead. Parker's getting positively softhearted these days and a surprising number of people are getting out of things alive, but I suspect that when her characters get drafted in, they all write a will immediately, and joke in the scene breaks about being red shirts.
The plot, as opposed to The Plot (which is so dumb when it's explained that I'm forced to conclude that it's the dummy plot for smoke screening the real conspiracy), is bracingly simple; the main characters are sent off as an exhibition duelling team to the neighbouring Republic as a peace building exercise, whereupon things start going wrong immediately. Parker succeeds in creating a wonderful miasma of suspicion around everything, so that every problem, whether major or minor, seems like further evidence of sinister scheming by the lord only know who. it's impossible to tell what's muddle and what's purposeful, and the setbacks and difficulties expand until you're looking up at the top of the page to check that you're still reading KJ Parker and not Connie Willis. What's going on? Well, it never becomes entirely clear. Maybe if you have a much bigger brain, or you're willing to go back and read the book again to parse it out (which in due course, I probably will), the various angles become less shadowy.
Sharps lacks the simple focus of Parker's earlier work, and has very little of the delight in problem solving which has characterised all her books so far. But all her other virtues are there, including the wry dialogue and the complicated characters who all think they're just doing their best no matter what it is that they're actually doing. And for the first time since The Company she's writing about a group, rather than a series of loners converging on a single fulcrum. Unlike the group in The Company, who'd known each other for years and carried all the grudges that come with that, the ensemble in Sharps don't know each other at all, and Parker does a clever job of showing us the petty bickering and misunderstandings which pass for communication among a group of stressed out strangers who don't know who to trust.
All of Parker's recent work seems to fit into a single world, though it's hard to join up all the backgrounds so that they hang together properly. I find myself wondering what the next book will be like - and as usual, given her publisher's approach of just unleashing her recent books with no fanfare - when we'll see it. Will she go back into sprawling long form, or continue with these sideways slices into her quixotic not-quite fantasy world? I'll have to wait and see.