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.
Much like the preceding section, this fourth part of Parker’s serialised novel changes the viewpoint on the reader. This time we’re dragged up into the higher echelons of politics, there to follow an aide to an Empress, as they – alongside everyone else – go to war. The character is portrayed with Parker’s typical flourishes. We see self doubt, seeds of misgiving, a core of unshakeable loyalty. There’s less of the trademark Parker cynicism, as such, but a great deal of self-awareness in the character, which shines through in contemplation, and the prose indicates a more reflective temperament than the protagonists that we’ve followed before.
The narrative, being centred around this point of view, reflects those alterations in character. There’s less of the rapid-fire dialogue and action of the preceding section; this feels more like a meditation on and examination of actions and consequences. The setting, as alluded to above, is different as well. There is some time spent in the insular courts of a nation trapped between sides in the war of Empires from the last there sections – but the large part is spent back out on the road, as our protagonist leads an army in search of a rather elusive enemy, with Parker’s traditionally unexpected results.
As usual, the prose is thoroughly enjoyable to read. Parker manages to create an informal, chatty tone, which makes for an extremely rapid read. At the same time, the tone wraps around the rather bleak events of the text, creating a wonderfully stark contrast between the medium and the message. Veteran Parker readers have seen this style before, most notably in his Purple and Black, which this shares themes with. There’s a lot of focus on people trying to do their best in adverse circumstances, and the long running Parker focus on the decay of complicated systems – in this case, the potential collapse of an army, and possibly an entire country.
There’s also a bit more focus on the elusive Craftsmen mentioned in the preceding volume; hints of an even deeper game are presented, and more hidden hands are revealed behind events. Quite where Parker is going to go with this isn’t entirely clear (as ever!), but there’s a definite layering of motives and mysterious characters with more than one hidden agenda.
As a standalone, this is a perfectly readable piece of short fiction by Parker; it has a lot of the common themes of their work, believable, reasonable, logical characters, clever and accessible prose, and is a thoroughly compulsive read. As part of the larger mosaic of a serial, it seems to be hinting toward the larger stories behind the currently visible tex. The movement of armies, the shifting sands of politics, all give the reader a broader perspective on events – tying those that occurred in the first three parts to those in the current section gives the reader a bit more insight. It also leaves them craving more.
Another thoroughly enjoyable piece by Parker, both as an individual work, and as part of the larger collection. Recommended!