The Two of Swords: K.J. Parker

★★★★½

The Two of Swords: Volume I

My next step with K.J. Parker should have been to continue the Engineer Trilogy, but it just so happened that I had time to kill on the evening I bought this book, and couldn’t resist starting it. In fact, Parker’s novels all seem to take place in the same world, so it didn’t even feel like straying. The Two of Swords has only confirmed my admiration for him as a writer. I’d go so far as to say I love his books. They’re knotty, cynical, pragmatic fantasy without a hint of magic, and the general flavour is what you might get if Machiavelli settled down to write an alternate-universe version of the Byzantine Empire. Stuffed full of double-bluffs and double-agents, this series takes us into the heart of a long-lasting war, spurred on by the personal enmity between the opposing generals – who also happen to be brothers. Two brothers; two armies; two empires; and one secret international fraternity, who may not be as neutral as they’ve always claimed to be…

A disclaimer. This post may give the impression that I know what’s going on. If so, that’s a mistake. I have no idea what’s happening. After five hundred pages, I haven’t a clue, and I’m perfectly happy about that. There are two volumes left, and I doubt anything will make sense until the final pages. The plot is as labyrinthine as a ball of wool tangled by a crazed kitten. Parker’s characters are all on the make, driven by their own motivations as well as those of their country, their craft or their creed. We watch them striving one against another, each pulling the strings of their own little puppet show, either in defiance or in ignorance of the broader show in which they’re only bit-players.

Each character is identified with a card from a pack similar to the tarot, whose motifs dominate the story. These cards are treated as fortune-telling tools by the hoi polloi, but have deeper meanings for those in the know: the craftsmen. And it’s these craftsmen whose wide-spread network makes up the Lodge: a brotherhood which bears a strong resemblance to the Masons. Allegedly, the craftsmen’s function is to aid to their brothers, no matter which side they’re on, but as the book progresses, it becomes clear that the Lodge (or some of its officers) may have greater ambitions.

So who are our characters? There’s a brilliant young archer; an imperial food-taster; a thief; a young woman with a gift for intrigue; an emperor; a famous musician; a general; and a courtier, to name just a few. We spend only one chapter following each character and then jump from their story to that of another person who’s had a cameo role, rather as if narrative is some kind of infection passed on by close contact. Previous characters do pop up now and again, but their own individual stories are subsumed in the epic sweep of the big picture – which, nevertheless, can be shifted into a new course by the actions of one individual. This isn’t a world where the humble young sheepherder from the village-in-the-middle-of-nowhere turns out to hold the future of an empire in his hands. Nope. This is far more realistic and cynical than that.

Cynical. That’s the word that has sprung to mind when reading all of K.J. Parker’s works. He isn’t a depressing author, far from it, but he is alert to the fundamental irony of life and war, not to mention the extreme futility of the latter. In fact, parts of The Two of Swords seem calculated to stress the stupidity of going to war at all. The two Belot brothers are so closely matched as generals that both are fundamentally unbeatable: their armies have been jostling for years with negligible effect, rather as the First World War cut swathes through an generation in order to win a few yards of territory. And what is the war for? That’s never really explained: it just is. There are two great empires, so why wouldn’t they be at war? And then there’s the fate of all the communities or kingdoms who have the misfortune to lie between the two armies, who find themselves pulled in as participants or peacekeepers in a conflict they simply don’t understand. While soldiers march around in their shiny uniforms, it isn’t the empires who profit from the war as much as the craftsmen, who find that chaos provides a useful smokescreen for their own mission – whatever that might be. Cynical about war; ironic about politics; clear-sighted about the advantages of pragmatism over nobility… you see why Parker reminds me of Machiavelli.

This is exactly my kind of fantasy, which is to say it’s very political and not particularly fantastical, but serves up a wonderfully chewy plot that demands attention. It probably isn’t the book for anyone who can’t deal with not knowing what’s happening at any given time. But if you fancy a bit of historical skulduggery, full of scholarly despots and artistic spies and culture-loving assassins, not to mention military strategy, mosaics and maps, then this is definitely worth a shot. Of course, I’m now completely torn. Do I continue with the Engineer Trilogy, as I own the second and third volumes? Or do I seek out the other two volumes of The Two of Swords? One thing’s for sure. I can only manage one of Parker’s mind-scramblingly complicated series at a time…

In case you were wondering, I also own the first two volumes of the Fencer Trilogy and the novella The Last Witness, so expect to see a lot more of Parker. It’s funny how I’ve gelled so strongly with his work under this pen-name, while feeling more lukewarm about his historical novels as Tom Holt, and completely steering clear of his madcap comic fantasy under that same name. It’s odd, isn’t it, how an author can manage to have three distinctly different personalities?

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4 thoughts on “The Two of Swords: K.J. Parker

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    Every time I read one of your reviews or one of Parker’s stories or novellas (as I did just today in issue #250 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies) I wonder why I still have not read any of his novels beyond the Fencer trilogy. (With the excpetion, that is, of the Novel about nero he wrote as Tom Holt, and which is very much like his Fantasy and which I think you might actually enjoy a lot.) The Fencer trilogy did have some lengths, but overall I liked it a lot, and while I still suspect that he’s probably best in novella form, I’m quite confident that his novels are all quite briilliant too. I really have no explanation for it, but I definitely need to tackle one of his novels soon….

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