Thursday, February 4, 2016

Two Of Swords (Part Twelve) - K.J. Parker

This is the twelfth part of K.J. Parkers serialised novel, Two of Swords.  The last part was largely focused on Axeo, as he attempted to perform a rather daring heist in the company of Musen, the trainee thief whom we’ve seen, off and on, since the first volume. This part picks up directly where the preceding one ended – with Musen on the run with their prize.

As Musen tears across the country, desperately trying to outpace a seemingly relentless Axeo, we do get to see a little more of the world.  Admittedly, we see most of it rather quickly, Still, it seems there’s more to the area than the bizarre palace from the preceding section; Musen runs into a collection of floating barges at one point, and we get a little time with the cheerful, hard working, and utterly ruthless people of the barges. It’s a credit to Parker’s prose that this feels like a dimmer, more liminal space – as Musen settles in with the people of the barges, he seems to transition between worlds; away from the frentic activity of the Lodge, he’s a bucolic farmboy – or at least a convincing simulacra of one.  There’s a sense of place in the words here, mixed with a feeling of transition. What comes after this, it seems, will be impossible to turn back from.

There’s some other interesting spaces thrown up as well. We get a little digression to another small village, where Musen follows the clang of steel to the resident blacksmith. It’s an opportunity to again have emphasised exactly how pervasive the Craftsmen are, and to show off another part of the world which has been depopulated by the ongoing war between the East and the West. Parker always evokes desolation well, and this is no exception. The inclusion of threads of humanity, pushing on with lives wrapped in hope or hopelessness, is a side-benefit. What exists here is life on a fringe, and one which is subject to the whims of events far outside of their control. To be fair, this has actually been one of the key threads running through the overall text, as we discover the constraints of power and the seemingly unstoppable occurrence of the seemingly inevitable. Still, after a few books with generals and Emperors, we’re back down at the grass-eye view, and it doesn’t look any rosier from either position.

Musen…well, he’s familiar to long time readers already of course, but we do get to see another side of him here. Previously, it’s been simple to see Musen as a pragmatic, amoral sort of fellow. He’s a thief, unashamedly so – and in fact, has been trained in it. There’s still plenty of that familiar Musen here, be he lifting small trinkets from passers by, or smuggling priceless artefacts. On the other hand, he is, it appears, also an individual with faith. It’s the strength of his faith that drives him through the events of this part, and leave him in opposition to his usual allies. It’s nice to see that he has other facets, and we get to see a vulnerability and a naivet√© here that isn’t visible elsewhere in his character.

We also get a bit more of a view on the cheerfully brutal Axeo from the previous part, as he pursues Musen – rather efficiently – in service to his own goals. Axeo’s rambunctious ebullience is infectious, and that it’s paired with hard-edged violence emphasises the contrasts in his personality all the more. In this part, we can see the growing affection he has for Musen, as he attempts to retrieve his recalcitrant cohort without having to murder him in some increasingly unpleasant manner. 

There’s also an opportunity to follow some more threads on Axeo’s relationship with his brother, and with people whom he claims – possibly without irony –a re his friends. The overall portrait is conflicted, and more than a little disturbing. Axeo is, like most of Parker’s characters, not a very nice person – but he has all of the capacity to leap off the page and become, if not nice, then a person. He’s believable as someone you might know, and that makes him all the more worrying.

Plot-wise, this feels a lot like a chase movie. Musen sets out on the run, and Axeo follows. Over the course of the text though, we get a little more insight into the goals of the Lodge, at least in the short term, and find out what they’re up to with the item that Axeo and Musen retrieved in the last part. That said, this is a book which delights in its characters having multiple levels of reason for anything they do, so I fully expect what is going on ‘on the surface’ is only at least partially correct. I can’t deny though, that this part was a riveting read – Parker makes the reader feel Musen’s fear as he runs, and Axeo’s resigned aggravation as he follows. There’s some great heart-stopping moments in here, and Parker ratchets up the tension with every page.

Is it worth reading? Well, if you’ve not read any of the preceding parts, this one’s going to be pretty difficult to take on as a stand alone. It’s probably possible without the context, but there’s layers of depth here that require reading the preceding parts for context. If you’re already up to date, then yes – this part moves the larger plot along, and gives us intense insight into two engaging, charmingly horrifying characters – it’s a great read.


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