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 sixth part continues the tradition of changing perspective on us. In the last section, we got insight into the mind of one of the Belot brothers, the fearsome leaders of the military on both sides of the civil war. In this section, the reader is given the other brother as their protagonist. On that basis, there’s some good stuff here. The second Belot brother has a tone a lot like the first, something which feels like a deliberate choice from Parker. There’s a focused intelligence and a certain dry wit.
Admittedly, the focus is largely lensed toward eliminating our previous protagonist, but that keeps things interesting. Our new point-of-view isn’t an irrational monster – quite the reverse. Much like his sibling, he feels rational, logical, and entirely plausible. There’s a certain sense of high flying intelligence, confined into the straits required of it by the establishment. We’re also given, through this new viewpoint, a little more insight into what drives the Belot brothers into their seemingly eternal conflict.
Alongside this new Belot, we do get a few supporting characters – including some from previous sections, which I won’t spoil here. We do also get a look at one of the Emperor’s; as ever with Parker, the sense of wry deprecation wrapped around a steel core is evident. Inevitably, it will all end badly, but for now, that Emperor is entirely plausible. There’s less of an ensemble cast here than perhaps previously, but the Belot we have this time does get a few defining character moments – there’s a level of regretful necessity, and an aura of necessary violence, about the narrative. On the other hand, this applied to the previous section as well – again, perhaps intentionally.
Plot-wise, we pick up immediately after the end of the previous part. The beginning, the struggle against another Belot’s forces, is frenetic and well paced – keeping the reader on the edge of their proverbial seat. It gives way to a more deliberate prose and plotting as things move along. By the close, the visible action is over, and all the knives and schemes are confined to dialogue. That dialogue, however, hits Parker’s usual high standards – there’s a sense of incredibly clever people operating at the top of their relative games, which is, as is traditional with Parker, leading to an appalling amount of institutional entropy. Where there is a potential to heal an institutional gap, a personal issue steps into the way. As ever, the dialogue is clever, often funny, and brutally cynical.
I won’t get into the plot per se, except to say it’s a light touch here. There’s a sense that pieces are being queued up for following parts of the narrative. That said, the contained arc is entirely readable – shifting gradually from action to political thriller as the pages turn. There’s a lot of tension in the text from about the halfway point, a feeling of unanswered questions, which Parker expertly exploits to leave his audience hanging.
Overall, this is a decent piece of work – it picks up and runs with the prose from the previous section. It doesn’t so much tie up loose ends as extend the threads. Each action seems to be spiralling into others, joining issues up and exacerbating them. There’s a feeling of a narrative slowly bubbling toward boiling point.
If you’ve not read the other parts before this one, I’d advise you do so before coming to this. It does work as a standalone novella, but there’s a lot of context being built up by this stage, and it adds layers to the plotting, the dialogue, and the characters. As part of a series, or alone, this is an excellent piece – clever and tight dialogue, believable characters, and a plot which shifts speeds quickly, but never lets go of the reader. Certainly worth reading, especially if you have the preceding sections.