Two of Swords is the new serialised novel by K.J. Parker. The first three parts are available now, and run to about eighty pages each. Further parts will be made available on a monthly basis. I’m going to try and put out a review for one of the currently available parts each week, and then review each new part in the month where it becomes available.
I’ve made no secret about being a big fan of K.J. Parker, who I think writes a lot of extremely interesting stories, with depressingly believable characters. Things tend to end badly for those characters; one of the key themes of Parker’s work is entropy; everything gradually falls apart, typically due to the actions of characters working with the best (or at least most reasonable) intentions. This tendency toward systemic collapse always makes for slightly depressing reading, but on the other hand, it’s usually tightly wound with a dry wit that exposes the essential humanity of the characters whilst eliciting the odd chuckle.
I’m happy to say that Two of Swords continues this trend. This first part introduces us to several farm boys, conscripted into a war They have a certain baffled innocence as a group which is rather charming, and the initial focus, on a lad who has some skill at archery, works as a means of drawing the reader into the world. Our viewpoint into the larger scale of things is as confused, disoriented and uninformed as we are – as he makes a bit of progress toward understanding, so do we. It’s always good to see world building done well, and Parker manages it through the little details – mentions of wider political situations in incidental dialogue; economic progress revealed through fashion...there’s all sorts of small clues to the world the characters inhabit scattered around the text, ready for readers to pick up, like ravens.
The characters are very well captured; Parker gives us a sense of confusion and drudgery most strongly, but there’s a whole gamut of emotions here. The gentle friendship of the protagonist and the village over-achiever, for example, is put into place so quickly you don’t notice, and forms the bedrock of the first half of the text, as they begin to move into the wider world together. The same is true of the sort of casual dislike f the protagonist for one of the other boys, something only becoming obvious as they move out of their comfort zone and into...well, a war zone.
The actual narrative is very tightly written. You could read it as a standalone short story, and it would work. There’s a definite character arc here for the protagonist, which eventually ends up going in some very unexpected directions. Suffice to say, the journey builds the character up nicely, and I’m not entirely sure what the destination will be. Parker doesn’t pull any punches either, in line with their usual style. There’s a lot of plot events packed into the eighty pages or so of text, and several of them are game-changers within the narrative, taking it off the expected path and throwing it somewhere entirely unexpected. Then once the reader is used to the new situation, they’re torn back out of it again. These narrative shifts are typical of Parker’s work, but they don’t lose their impact here.
In the end then, is this worth picking up? As a standalone short story, it isn’t too bad at all; interesting characters, a fast moving plot, and a believable and not over-drawn setting. As the start of a broader narrative, it shares those virtues, with a promise to build on them in the next segment (which has an entirely different protagonist). In either case then, yes, it’s definitely worth your time and money, and absolutely worth reading.