Wednesday, June 24, 2015

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

Two of Swords is the new serialised novel by K.J. Parker. The first five 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.

This fifth section of  Two of Swords takes the reader somewhere new. We’ve been at the ground level of the ongoing war in the first two parts, introduced to politics in the third, and given a broader perspective in the fourth. Across the whole conflict, however – social, military, political – there has been a sense of balance. East and West, similar enough to tear each other apart over minor differences, each side looking for a way to tip the balance their way. The balance, in this case, being held by the Belot brothers. We’ve heard of them before, in preceding parts of the text – both fearsome generals, able to turn certain defeat into glorious victory, and each fighting for one side because their brother fights for the other.

The reader is now taken into the head of one of those Belots, giving us a view of the war which is both highly placed, and highly personal.  What we have here is more akin to a solo character study than an ensemble piece. The text examines this Belot’s relationship with his wife, and it manages the trick of making what could have been a remote, chilly character seem endearing. Our protagonist for this piece is marred by his apparent dislike of his brother, a defining factor which appears to have shaped the trajectory of the world around them – though there’s also a well crafted impression that this is now a matter of resigned form, paradoxically existing alongside an older seething and poisoned relationship. But at the same time, ‘our’ Belot is wrapped up in his wife, and this shows through, both externally, in his determination to protect her, and internally, in the way in which he delights in and accepts her presence. It’s a credit to Parker that the reader can feel both sides of Belot’s emotional coin.

There’s some other stuff going on here of course. Belot is, after all, a general. Several sections of the text are centred around key battles, or the planning of same. At least one of these is a reaction to the events portrayed in the preceding volume. Both have Parker’s usual complement of unfortunate events, and have an immediacy gained by the viewpoint character which helps make them feel real. As with preceding parts, there are several twists and turns, and this section promises to have a great impact on everything that follows thereafter – it’s raised questions about how the next part will move forward, and where exactly it will be going to when it does so.

As an aside, this volume felt particularly short – it’s around 40 pages, to the 60 of the preceding one. It’s a shame, because I would have enjoyed more time in Belot’s head; he has the relentless self-awareness that Parker does very well, and his relationship with his brother, briefly shown as it is, feels like it should be given a book all of it’s own.

Is it worth reading? I’d guess it would be less enjoyable as a piece of solo fiction than the preceding parts. It feels as if the volumes that came before are providing a valuable context, which makes each event here have extra layer of meaning. Still, evebn as a standalone, it’s a tight, well done piece of fiction. As part of something larger, and with the promise of more volumes to come, it’s very enjoyable – though the end does come perhaps too soon.

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