Thursday, May 7, 2015

Two of Swords (Part Three) - K.J. Parker

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.

The third part of Parker’s serialised novel shifts the scope a little. We’re moved away from the broad sweeps of warfare, the stumbling confusion of conscripts and lower echelon troops – instead, our perspective settles in higher society. There’s discussion of politics, of the reasons that the central conflict exists. Away from the sharp end shown in the first two parts, there’s a sense of shifting currents in a largely static event, a cold war with hot edges. On the other hand, whilst there’s less interest in large scale battles, this section has a keener focus on small scale murder.

The characters continue to be typical Parker. The protagonist in particular comes off very well, as alluded to above. There’s perhaps less strength in the supporting cast of characters than there was before, but on the other hand, they have less immediate effect, largely serving as givers or receivers of orders – they do get to keep the wry dialogue that always makes Parker a pleasure to read, but this section really is focused on the central character.

Our protagonist for this section of the serial appears to act as something of a mobile troubleshooter. Sent to key points in the conflict, to preserve lives, or to end them – really, to do whatever needs doing, in whatever way her rather opaque and obfuscated masters will allow.  Parker has always managed to craft believable female characters, and this one is no exception. The reader is given a view on an entirely pragmatic individual, aware of their own skills and competence; not driven to succeed as much as a consummate professional. At the same time, there are touches of wry humour running through the viewpoint, observations of the character of others which made me crack a smile and chuckle occasionally – they help to humanise the protagonist. Other little touches – a n interest in antiquarian books, a duel of words with a priest that is also a confession – help realise that humanity, and turn what could have been a paper thin plot device into a living, breathing person.

The setting changes a bit as well – gone are the muddy hovels and barracks of the first two instalments. Instead the reader is subjected to the airy marble halls of governance. And the muddy trellis of governance. And the dark bedrooms of governance. It’s all a touch more rarefied, though no less brutal for all of that. This section seems to play on the theme of battlefields a little, drawing comparisons between the blood spattered massacres of the first sections and the cold slice of politics in this one. At any rate, the difference in setting doesn’t detract from it – Parker’s on fine form here,  breathing life into formal buildings and large social events, as well as (and often alongside) clandestine meetings in dark corners.  The broadening of the social view after the first two sections is intriguing – the reader is getting a lot more context on the world, although a lot of it is surrounded by layers of deliberate camouflage. Parker is bringing the reader’s attention to the wider world outside the current narrative, and it makes for interesting reading.

From a narrative perspective, there’s quite a lot going on here – political manoeuvring, personal clashes, what might, at a push, be taken for a touch of romance – and the occasional murder. It’s a little slower paced than other instalments in some areas, but the pacing picks up quickly for some extremely tense action scenes.

This is perhaps the first section which doesn’t work as well as a stand alone story. It’s still readable as one, but you lose some of the valuable context from the first two sections. That said, of the three currently available sections, it’s probably the strongest as part of the ensemble. If you’ve not read the first two parts, I’d advise picking those up first –but if you’ve read those and enjoyed them, this part certainly hit (and crested) the already high bar set by its predecessors. 

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