Thursday, March 31, 2016

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

It’s time for another in our ongoing review series of K.J. Parker’s serial novel, Two of Swords. We’re up to part fourteen now. It follows on directly from part thirteen, which ended somewhat painfully for its protagonist, after an unpleasant and swift altercation with a man on a horse, with a bow. Also arrows.

In this section, we’re immediately swept up into the life of the aforesaid horseman. He’s a nice sort of lad really, pulled into a war out of cultural necessity, rather than any sort of boiling thirst for blood. It helps that he spends a fair amount of time here running away from people who’d quite like to give him a severe case of iron poisoning. Still, there’s a certain thoughtfulness in the text here which keeps it interesting. He’s a warrior, of sorts, but it feels like he’d rather be a carpenter. His initial companions are sullen, and range from the barely competent to the reasonably capable; Parker shows off a nice bit of emotional range here, with a sort of nihilistic pragmatism pervading the group. There’s a sense of low-burning grudges being brought back to flame by the high pressure situation, and the slowly rising tension is carefully, brutally portrayed.

Later, we get a more in-depth look at the Lodge, at least from our protagonist’s view. This lets us explore his views on faith; it also shows us the power of incremental change, as he transitions away from his original role, and becomes something that is, if not better, at least different. There’s some pleasantly obfuscated conversations – as ever with Parker, the dialogue scintillates, layering meaning between every word. The reader is shown a man who is given an opportunity to become something else – as well as the conflicts he runs into whilst trying to work out what, exactly, that is.

It’s great to see some more of individuals from outside of the two warring Empires. There are hints at different traditions, at a sort of clan structure, and a rich culture with a penchant for facial marking. We also get some more detail on the Lodge – particularly around the way their ideology is structured, what their broad goals may be, and why they think those goals are important. Of course, being Parker, there’s a reasonable chance that all of those things are, at best, half truths. Still, it’s an expansion of their mythology, something we’ve been interested in all the way up until now, and it makes for a strangely attractive theology. As our protagonist works through his understanding, it lets the reader examine their own faiths, preconceptions and cultural blindspots. It’s an intriguingly subtle exploration, which makes for a fascinating read.

From a plot perspective – well, no spoilers. There’s a large amount of journeying hither and yon, and this lets us see what sort of progress the seemingly eternal war is making. The pacing feels almost languid for much of the time, focused on the character journey, rather than external events.

That said, there’s a couple of serious revelations here, hammer blows at expectations and the established narrative. By the close of this part of the text, perhaps more than any other, I wasn’t sure where things were going next.

Is it worth reading? Well, I think you’d struggle with this as a standalone piece, though it might work that way, just from the compelling nature of Parker’s prose. But if you’ve already invested in the series, then yes – this one is a great character piece, and it has some serious game changers for the wider world floating around in its narrative too. Well worth picking up.

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