Monday 5 July 2010

Book Review: The Folding Knife by K. J. Parker

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"Basso the Magnificent. Basso the Great. Basso the Wise. Basso the Murderer. The First Citizen of the Vesani Republic is an extraordinary man.

"He is ruthless, cunning and, above all, lucky. He brings wealth, power and prestige to his people. But with power comes unwanted attention, and Basso must defend his nation and himself from threats foreign and domestic. In a lifetime of crucial decisions, he's only ever made one mistake.

"One mistake, though, can be enough."


K. J. Parker is a bit of a mystery. Readers are in the dark even when it comes to this author's gender. I don't know that there's any pressing need to get Sherlock involved to clear things up - it makes little difference one way or the other - but for the purposes of this review, I'm going to go against the received wisdom and guess Parker's a man; a man playing an elaborate game with us to see if we'll assume he's a woman simply for the fact that historically, woman obscure their sex more often than men. That's my $0.02 on one of the genre's most baffling debates.

For me, however, the mystery went deeper. Before The Folding Knife, I'd never read a K. J. Parker novel. I'd nearly taken the plunge on a few - the Engineer trilogy in particular had appealed to me - but the diversity of opinions on each of Parker's publications stayed my hand. People bandy about the "love it or hate it" label more often, I think, than they should; usually it'd be closer to the truth to say they either adore or mildly dislike a thing. And yet with Parker, the range of reactions does indeed seem to err on the aforementioned extremes. Rarely do you come upon an author whose work can be described as superb on one hand and deathly dry on the other. Long story short: I came to The Folding Knife with some reservations. Two sittings later, I'm glad I didn't let them stop me.

Bassianus Severus is either the greatest First Citizen the Republic has ever had, or incredibly, extraordinarily lucky. The economy turns on his dime; he wins wars so effortlessly you'd be forgiven for thinking the result an accident; the Vesani people of the believe he's a leader of the little guy. His private life, however, is a shambles. Basso is a lonely man: his best friend is his father's former slave, his wife a duplicitous piece of work. He loves his sister more than anyone else in the world: she, meanwhile, has made it her life's work to make trouble for the First Citizen at every turn. Basso's only confidant is his estranged nephew, whose father he murdered, and whose murder he got away with, years before he took office. His entire administration is like a house of cards. One gust of wind and it'll all come crashing down. What better time, then, for the perfect storm to appear on the horizon?

Parker is an assiduously clever author, and his latest is as packed full of the same intellectual concerns I'm given to understand many of his other novels have hinged on: the politics, society and economy of a fantasy world not too far removed from our own. Hardly the most exiting mix of ingredients to spin a speculative yarn from, perhaps, yet I find myself struggling to sympathise with those readers who find themselves disenfranchised by The Folding Knife and its predecessors, because this book is anything but dull. Unless the subject matter itself is enough to put such people off, what waits within these pages is a whirlwind of wit and wonderment. Largely thanks to a central character that always keeps you on your toes and his snappy, doublethink dialogue with an excellent supporting cast, Parker manages to make even politics fun - no mean feat.

There's a sense of inexorable forward motion to The Folding Knife that makes it an easy and undemanding read. We don't question whether or not Basso's luck will turn because the narrative begins at the end, with the First Citizen after his downfall. When linear chronology reasserts itself, readers are left wondering when, not if, it'll all fall apart. In the interim, Basso is a fantastic protagonist to spend the time with. There's always more going on with him that you think: he's smart, forthright and conniving. He has a wicked sense of humour that'll have you guffawing into your coffee. Dry, dark and deadpan, Basso is hilariously irreverent and unimaginably clever. Except that's he got a long fall ahead of him, you never know what's next on the First Citizen's agenda. All you can be sure of is that you're going there with him, and fast. This book, you see, is paced like a hundred metre sprint. It's lightning quick out of the gate, furiously fast when it crosses the finishing let, and it rarely lets up in between.

That said, there's no real action to speak of. Readers who demand extended fight scenes from their fiction will find themselves stymied by The Folding Knife. The action herein, such as it is, tends to take the form of animated parliamentary debates, horse shortages and the occasional assassination attempt. In Parker's hands, however, such seemingly dry subjects come alive; they're as exhilarating, in their way, as any massive battle. The only real issue I have with The Folding Knife is that Basso's perspective is a touch too restrictive; you never get a sense of the larger Vesani republic except through his jaded eyes. Which is a shame, because what little of the city and its surrounding environs we do see begs for more in-depth exploration.

Otherwise, The Folding Knife is a very fine novel indeed. Intelligent and darkly comic, full of surprises and pacey as a runaway trail, it represents a great time waiting to be had for those readers who can stomach the superficially discouraging subject matter. Basso is a fantastic character I suspect I'll remember long after the particular quirks of leads from other, more prominent genre affairs are as so much dust in the desert to my memory. As I said at the outset, The Folding Knife was my first K. J. Parker. It won't be my last.


The Folding Knife
by K. J. Parker
June 2010, Orbit

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  1. K.J. Parker is one of my favorite authors. I really like her (I think the author is a she although I am not certain) works and I have "The Folding Knife" on my reading pile too. It is close to the top, especially since this year I enjoyed a lot her novella, "Purple and Black". She is an original writer.
    Very nice review, Niall :)

  2. I'm glad you liked it. I remember picking up the first of the Engineer trilogy in a charity shop and being absolutely blown away (what's better than discovering a new favourite author?). He/she is a damn clever author. Everyone keeps talking about people doing interesting things with the genre, but Parker has been doing it for years. If only I could forgive the ending of the Fencer trilogy ... But all the recent reviews of this and the other books I haven't read yet are starting to persuade me ...

  3. Oh, now I'm really feeling the absence of a publicty chum at SubPress; I saw that you'd picked Purple and Black as one of your favourite books of the year, Mihai. Not sure The Folding Knife could fend off the stiff competition that's already lining up in my eventual top five, but it sure was lots of fun to read, and frankly, there's not enough of that in the genre these days: fun.

    @Rachel - What's better than discovering a new favourite author? Having just come off reading The Holy Machine and The Quantum Thief, I can say with some certaintly: pretty much nothing.

  4. Nice review. I recently finished my first work by Parker - Devices & Desires. The things you've said about Parker, and...that person's abilities, above hold just as true in the book I just finished. Needless to say, I'm hip deep in the second book of that trilogy - Evil for Evil. Among living authors, I really only favored S. Donaldson, T. Williams and P. Rothfuss, but Parker may be going in there, too.

  5. Great review! Nice to see my take on it lines up so nicely with yours. I, too, started reading Parker with The Folding Knife, and have now moved into the engineer trilogy. I'm one of those readers with whom Parker's writing style clicks.

    One thing I found odd about The Folding Knife was the title, really. Other than making a couple cameos early on in the novel, it didn't really serve a purpose, not even as a maguffin, really. Not sure why the book was named after that item. Yes, I realize it was used "to do something" early on that had lifelong ramifications for Basso, just wondered why it didn't factor in more throughout the book.

    But I really liked the book, the character of Basso, and your review. Thanks for writing/posting it.

  6. If any readers are interested in actually getting a nice pocket knife or folding knife, go to for some really great deals.

  7. Wonderful review! I think Parker is a genius. From Parker's books I've read, I'm thinking she's a woman.