Sharps – K. J. Parker

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A mismatched group of reluctant fencers is sent on a goodwill tour through a conquered neighbour. They find that not only must they fight with un-bated swords, they’re not at all up to their putative purpose, and no one seems to care.

When I first ran across K. J Parker, through his (we now know) Fencer trilogy, I was thrilled. Here was someone doing something decidedly different and interesting, rather than just regurgitating Tolkien. It’s interesting, because I hadn’t enjoyed Tom Holt (Parker’s real name) much. I raced through the Fencer trilogy, the less good Scavenger series, the equally good Engineer trilogy. But in the stand-alone books, I started to bog down.

The Hammer, The Company, The Folding Knife, the trilogies – the fact is that they’re all essentially the same. Parker makes the comparison easier by insisting on the use of generics – the Empire, the Bank, the Company, all similar bodies set in an indeterminate universe that may or may not overlap, but easily could. The characters are all very similar – well-intentioned, clumsy types who make a mess of things when they mean to do well, and do well by accident. They do barbaric, grotesque things as a matter of course, usually presented as obligatory for fairly vague reasons. The central theme of each book – usually captured in the title – is a metaphor pounded relentlessly into each scene, and molded to fit every circumstance.

It’s a formula that worked very well, for a while. With Sharps, though, it’s starting to feel very much as if Parker has run his course. The writing remains excellent, but there’s no real variation in approach. Parker has very much become a one-note song, and you can tell from page one pretty much how things are going to go. It’s well done, but it’s not interesting.

Other writers have done the same thing, of course – Jack Vance used and re-used a relatively small cast of characters; Patricia McKillip’s novels all tend toward the same dreamy, romantic tone. The difference is that they managed to make each repetition enthralling. I read their books not so much for the plot as because I enjoy the journey. Parker, for all his technical skill, has missed the trail, and is into his third or fourth time around the same loop.

For all that, Sharps is well done. It’s built with the same careful skill as Parker’s other books – the same attention to detail, the same verisimilitude, the same well-drawn characters, the same clever dialogue, the same small incident that grows in importance as we see it from more angles. In fact, it would be an excellent book, if it weren’t exactly the same as all his others.

I don’t give up easily. I still have hopes Parker will do something new and do it well. Maybe that’s his new serial, Two of Swords. For the time being, though, I think I’ll wait until it’s complete and reconsider it then.

If you’re new to Parker’s work, I highly recommend Sharps. It’s a clever, well-written, unusual fantasy with a lot of interesting elements. If you’ve read his other work, this is more of the same – determinedly so. You’ll have to judge for yourself whether you’re tiring of the same old trick, no matter how well done.

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