Friday, 21 January 2011

Book Review | The Hammer by K. J. Parker

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The colony was founded seventy years ago. The plan was originally to mine silver, but there turned out not to be any. Now an uneasy peace exists on the island, between the colonists and the once-noble met'Oc, a family in exile on a remote stronghold for their role in a vaguely remembered civil war. The met'Oc are tolerated, in spite of occasional cattle stealing raids, since they alone possess the weapons considered necessary protection in the event of the island's savages becoming hostile.

Intelligent, resourceful, and determined, Gignomai is the youngest brother in the current generation of met'Oc. He is about to realise exactly what is expected of him; and what it means to defy his family.


K. J. Parker: making life difficult for book reviewers since 1998.

As previously discussed here on The Speculative Scotsman, there's a bit of a mystery about Parker. Simply put, we don't whether the author of The Hammer is male or female - as if it'd make a lick of difference one way or the other were the secret finally outed. But for whatever reason, the pseudonymous mystery persists, and so reviewing K. J. Parker feels like walking a rocky road of awkward pronouns. Thus, in the interests of even-handedness, given that I presumed masculinity the last time we spoke of this author, for the purposes of this review we're going to say he's a lady. I mean, uh, she's a... lady.

Good, yes. Right. On with the show!

The third in a sequence of three standalone fantasy novels, after The Company in 2008 and The Folding Knife last yearThe Hammer is handily the most impressive of the lot. It begins with a fabulous little fable about family life in the Met'Oc compound, a hilltop stronghold of fallen-from-favour nobles exiled to the fringes of an distant island colony, where life is hard and the rich have no choice but to be as the poor: lowly subsistence farmers eking out an existence from the ground beneath their feet.

The Met'Oc haven't adapted terribly well to the calamitous change in circumstances, so when young Gignomai is tasked with the care of three chickens, he shoulders his seven years of age to take his responsibility seriously. A week of feeding and mucking on, the chickens are killed; someone or something has gotten into the run and slaughtered the things whole. No matter, Gig's brothers Luso and Stheno say to the boy... it wasn't your fault. (p.2) Thus they entrust a further three chickens to him.

A further three chickens are found dead in their coop the next day. Though in principle relieved of his ill-fated responsibilities, Gignomai takes it upon himself to discover exactly what's been doing the devouring; stays up late one night to see a wolf, quite likely "the last surviving wolf on the Tabletop, or maybe in the whole colony," (p.3) killing the things. He's afraid no-one would believe him if he tells the truth, yet if he does nothing - the selfsame nothing his family will surely continue to do, as is their way - the chickens, of which the Met'Oc's already-sparse supply is dwindling, will keep getting killed.

So it's down to him. If he can't cry wolf, his only choice is to kill wolf. Canny from the first, Gig lays a trap for the creature, barricades it inside the woodshed, and burns the beast into the great goodnight... chalking up "half the winter's supply of seasoned timber [...] and twelve dozen good fence posts" (pp.5-6) not to speak of the remaining chickens as collateral damage. He regrets his short-sightedness, but reasons that at least the job's done; no-one else was going to do it, and it needed doing. Only "Next time, he decided, I'll make sure I think things through." (p.7)

Fourteen years later, Gignomai gets his chance. He escapes the Tabletop, begins work on a factory which stands to revolutionise the colony, and in so doing sets in motion a grand scheme decades in the making and years in the undertaking. Which he describes thusly:

"This great and noble work you have undertaken---"
"It's not like that," Gignomai said quietly. "It's more sort of personal. An indulgence, really."
The old man looked at him, head slightly one one side. "But for the good of the people, surely."
"I want justice," Gignomai said sharply. It wasn't what he had been planning to say. "Doesn't always do anybody any good," he said. "But it's what I want." (p.228)

Justice seems a theme Parker could wring an entire career in fantasy fiction from. It was what Basso gave, and in turn got, so memorably in The Folding Knife, and in The Hammer it is Gignomai Met'Oc's absolute ideal, quite against good reason. Justice was what Gig served upon the poor wolf in the prologue - a wolf very likely hobbled by his own family's hunters and surviving, until it didn't, the only way it could: by scavenging, just as the Met'Oc have had to since their banishment - and justice is what he means now to serve upon another party who've somehow offended his sensibilities.

He's a monster, is Gig. You won't realise just how till the final curtain call, and I'll be damned if I ruin the last bitter twist of the knife, but believe you me. That said, you'll love him, hate him, and love to hate him... same as I did. He's a fantastic character: sly and single-minded, self-righteous, sparking with wit and cunning and eternally tormented by the vague spectre of some evil around which the book's three parts - variously entitled Seven Years Before, The Year When and Seven Years After - revolve. Add to that, Gig's as unreliable a narrator as they come: "His voice was so pleasant, so sensible and reassuring - you could trust that voice, you could be sure that anything it said was obviously the right thing," (p.260) and indeed, in the early-going, Parker's disarmingly unfussy narrative doesn't leave room for us to question the littlest Met'Oc's motives. Everything he does seems to be the right thing.

Chapter by chapter, however, a sense of unease builds. Parker is at pains to stress that what good Gig does is in service - always in service - of some other purpose. At a certain point even his closest friend and confidante realises he has "a special way of lying, which involved mostly telling the truth." (p.280) In short order you get to wondering what in the world Gig is up to, and it's a fine line to traverse - the balance between engendering empathy and emotional investment and knowingly deceiving the reader - which the author walks in step with her protagonist. Which is to say ably.

It bears saying, I suppose, that The Hammer is of a particular breed of fantasy fiction, much less intent on the fantasy than the fiction. As Gig quips, "Somewhere there might just possibly be dragons, unicorns and similar mythic beasts, but he was pretty sure he'd never encounter one, and most certainly not here." (p.114) Parker has never been one to whip out a troll horde for +5 genre appeal, nor does she do so here - and I wouldn't have it any other way. However, if I were forced to find fault in my experience of The Hammer, it wouldn't be with The Hammer itself - short, perhaps, an abundance of overbearing similes in the last section - so much as with the stomping grounds the author has over twelve novels and a handful of more abbreviated work hammered out for herself: for the more K. J. Parker you've read, the less surprising it'll be that Gignomai Met'Oc, as with her every other protagonist, is a mastermind of deviant proportions. Sometimes a track record of surprises can come to undermine, to render the next surprise that much less surprising. Surely anyone who remembers M. Night Shyamalan will swear by that.


Anyway. It would be doing The Hammer a terrible disservice to say it's simply the same, again, because Parker has shaved back the grander ambitions characteristic of her past work significantly, the better to tell a more personal tale; a more intimate, and so more immediately engaging narrative. Its scope might be much reduced, yet it's testament to Parker's laser-fine focus that The Hammer's smaller scale inhibits not at all the novel's sense of import.

I expected The Hammer to be a pleasant diversion: smart and fun and unfussy... you know the like. And it is all those things, indeed it is - par for the K. J. Parker course - but what the secretive author has proffered up here is so much more satisfying, so much more profound, than that and that alone. From least to most, then, this stunning standalone fantasy is a chronicle of the re-invention of industry - the particulars of which are fascination themselves; it's a many-faceted rumination on the point and the price of justice (a subject presumably so close to Parker's literary heart because of her and her partner's profession in the pursuit of said); and it is a provocative portrait, last and not least, of a character so complex and conflicted, so dark and somehow endearing, few are likely to rival Gignomai Met'Oc until Parker tops him herself, whenever the next of her novels rolls around.

Which, by the by, can't come soon enough. In the interim, take it in hand that The Hammer is very possibly Parker's finest fantasy to date.


The Hammer
by K. J. Parker

UK Publication: January 2011, Orbit
US Publication: January 2011, Orbit

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  1. I love me some K.J. Parker

  2. Then indeed, you will love you some K. J. Parker in this new novel, not coincidentally by K. J. Parker. You might even say it's K. J. Parkeriffic! :P

  3. If you check out Subterranean Press webpage, they mention that K.J.Parker is indeed a woman. I've never understood why it's remained such a mystery.

  4. They've always said she's a woman. I think the mystery is that many people think that it's bullshit.