The Two of Swords: Volume One (2015): K.J. Parker

★★★★½

The Two of Swords: Book 1

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…

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Devices and Desires (2005): K.J. Parker

★★★★½

The Engineer Trilogy: Book I

With a long trip looming, I was hunting for the perfect book: something with engaging characters, brilliant world-building and a plot I could really get my teeth into. Fate must have been listening, because it brought me face to face with this unassuming-looking volume. For the last week, this has been my constant companion: a deliciously rich tale of intrigue and vengeance; love, loyalty and friendship; and clashing cultures. It’s shelved under fantasy because it takes place in a place not registered on any map of our world, but there isn’t a speck of magic in it. Anchored in technological experimentation and political strife, this is a superb story of human ambition – and how one small act can ripple out to bring down civilisations and change history for ever.

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The Devil You Know (2016): K.J. Parker

★★★★

This is the first story I’ve read by K.J. Parker; or rather, the first I’ve read under that name. For K.J. Parker, as everyone now knows, is a pseudonym of Tom Holt, the author of gleeful comic novels set in Ancient Greece, and (as Thomas Holt) the slightly less successful Viking epic Meadowland. I’ve enjoyed Holt’s work under his own name and so was tempted to dip my toe into his fantasy efforts, courtesy of this short novel published by Tor. I absolutely couldn’t resist the blurb. This is a novella of wit, good, evil, ambition and sheer outright nerve; despite its brevity it reads like a mashup of Faust and Good Omens. And you should know me well enough to know that I think that’s a very good thing.

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Meadowland: Thomas Holt

★★★

John Stetathus doesn’t want to go to Sicily. As a fretful middle-aged accountant in the Byzantine civil service in 1036, the last thing he wants to do is to leave his comfy life in Constantinople, and traipse off overland to supervise the delivery of the pay packet to the Emperor’s troops. But he has ‘a knack for languages and a fatal tendency to listen to people‘, so his fate is sealed. And what makes it even worse is that there isn’t any decent company on the way. All he has are three Varangian guards: great brutish Northerners who don’t offer the slightest hope of civilised conversation. But travel wears a man down and so, one night (having a knack for languages), he begins in desperation to talk to them.

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Olympiad: Tom Holt

★★★★

Now for something very topical. Although best known for his comic fantasy books, Tom Holt has always been a classicist at heart and this is one of his three historical novels based in Ancient Greece. Deliciously tongue-in-cheek, Olympiad offers a gleeful romp through the Peloponnese of the 8th century BC, as a group of hapless travellers set out to create a whole new kind of sports event.

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