Two of Swords is the new serialised novel by K.J. Parker. The first eight 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, and then review each new part in the month where it becomes available.
Part eight of the series continues the tradition of the first seven, in giving us the viewpoint of a secondary character from the preceding part. In this case, it’s that of the Imperial food taster, seconded into minding a thief (Musen, from the first and second parts of the serial) as they travel out from the capital to acquire a particularly special deck of cards.
In terms of setting, we get quite a lot of the familiar here. We’re dragged across desolate moors, and other pieces of unpleasant countryside. In some ways, these are familiar – they look a lot like the desolate moors that the village infantrymen were dragged across in the opening part of the serial. That parallel, a journey out, and a journey back, is echoed elsewhere as well. Part of that echo comes when our taster and his thief meet other characters. Most of them are, it turns out, fairly heavily armed, and of ambiguous friendliness. There’s also a lot more Craftsmen kicking about. The Craftsmen, thus far, have been something of a shadow, a power behind the curtains of the power behind the throne. A large proportion of our characters seem to have been part of the mysterious ‘Lodge’, at least nominally – and here we finally see them in a bit more depth.
That’s the world that Parker’s got for us here – it’s familiar, from earlier in the serial, but the addition of the Craftsmen leaves our understanding of that world changed. At least, somewhat. In vintage Parker style, the dialogue of our new protagonist with the members of the Craft that he meets are rather cryptic. In fact, they’re deliberately obfuscatory. Our protagonist is trying to prise information from the Craft without giving away his bargaining position, as he tries to learn what’s going on whilst acquiring the aforesaid deck of cards. They rather want the money that he has in hand, for various long term reasons, but don’t want to give too much away. It’s reminiscent of a Le Carre thriller – both sides speaking around the point, assuming knowledge, even assuming certain assumptions. The effect is to offer the reader a half-visible glimmer of understanding, surrounded by a swamp of potential fabrications. On the other hand, Parker’s dialogue has always been a joy to rad. It flows wonderfully, with a perfect pitch of wry self-knowledge on both sides of the conversation. The undercurrent of dry, pragmatic wit is still there, and gave me some solid chuckles, as well as the occasional raised eyebrow as something particularly clever went off.
On which topic – the plot. Well, the conversation itself doesn’t advance the broader plot so much. However, it does throw some elements into the mix of the plot. The consequences of the conversation, however, are broadly described at the close of the text, and there’s hints that what happened here is one of the pivot points for the wider conflict. It’s not a fast paced occasion, by any means, but as usual, it’s a piece of compelling prose, which makes promises, and then delivers on them – if not always in the way you might expect. As with the preceding segment, it’s a fairly short 60 pages, and they felt like they went by a lot quicker. This volume doesn’t have the raw physicality of some of the others, but has a compulsive momentum that won’t let go of the reader – and makes for a fascinating read.