We’re now on to the eleventh part of our series on K.J. Parker’s serialised novel, Two of Swords. Last time we checked in – just before Christmas – we’d left the rather smug Oida going one way, and a mysterious letter going another. In the tradition of the series so far, we follow the letter, and switch viewpoints – this time to Oida’s brother.
As siblings go, Axeo is...well, clearly a reflection of his brother. I’m not sure I’d want to say which of them is a better or worse individual, but it certainly seems as if Axeo is rather more in the school fo dirty street fighting, rather than the covert operations we tend to see from Oida. He’s absolutely fascinating in his own right, though. An intelligent man, with a streak of, if not morality, then loyalty, he makes an excellent protagonist for this section.
He’s joined by Musen, whom past readers may remember from other sections fo the narrative. He acts as a foil to Axeo’s more sophisticated and experienced persona, though remaining no less complex. Musen is learning the ropes of a more brutal form of operation to those we saw in Oida’s last narrative section. The contrast between the almost invisible approach led by Oida, and the more public, occasionally brutal approach of his brother is worth review. Musen remains a seemingly silent partner here, following the edicts of the mysterious ‘Lodge’ with very little in the way of question. Parker manages, however, to make Musen seem startlingly naïve in the complex arena of the…why...off his actions, whilst giving him a strong contrast in his competence in the how. This combination of zealotry and thievery is an absolute delight to watch – as is Axeo’s response, which is always unflinchingly unpleasant, whilst being (by his own lights) fair.
This rather unlikely duo are involved in what might be called a heist. Despite the high stakes – life and death are held alongside a long running thread of tension – Parker manages to make their approach seem smooth, despite also indicating how the plan was put together. There’s some excellent tense moments here, as the two meander their way through various high security areas, using a combination of guile, lockpicks, and the occasional sharp knock to the head. It’s matched by some more of Parker’s typically excellent dialogue; the back and forth between Axeo and Musen manages to be cheerfully funny, with a fine undertone of menace throughout. They also get into some surprisingly complex issues around faith, power and responsibility in between high value thefts.
Is it worth picking up? Well, I’d say so. By this point, you probably know whether you’re going to carry on with the series or not, but this instalment is still rather good. It made me laugh outright several times, and get strung out on the narrative tension but it also made me think – about the way people define themselves, about the way the world is structured, and about family. It puts a lot of depth into a small package, and that makes for an intriguing read.