This is Parker at their best, frankly. The narrator is unreliable, intelligent, incisive, and sarcastic. The narrative voice, tied to the internal monologue of the character, is clear, personable, and thoroughly entertaining. As usual, Parker shines at giving us a protagonist we can root for who is at once thoroughly likable and rather flawed. Identity, come to think of it, is one of the key themes of the text. Watching our lead, a some-time professional actor-slash-impersonator, struggle to define who they are through the constraints of their own unreliable narration is a joy. When they’re still struggling to define themselves against their own legacy, how are we supposed to take what they say as entirely true.
Speaking of which, this is a story which does dip back into the past now and again, telling us the story of our protagonist’s childhood, from his own eyes, showing us, little by little, how he ended up where he is, and also how he ended up as the person that he is. Some other parts of the story are laugh out loud funny, and even these sections can get a subversive chuckle out of me, but there’s some grim reading here, dark steel beneath warmer words. The child of an enforcer in the Themes, the unofficial gangs of the City, our narrator comes from a heritage of violence, extortion, and outright murder. Struggling to shake off that heritage helps shape them, and they also have enough self-awareness to acknowledge the role that their childhood has in making them who they are. Frankly, the way that we start with an enigma, and gradually see parts of our narrator’s history field in by their own recollections, and from other characters in dialogue, is compelling stuff, and the slow drip of revelation and discovery made the story all the more intriguing.
So yes. Rock solid protagonist. Top banter. Clever. Thinks things through. Unreliable, though with a bit more of a moral centre than a lot of Parker’s other leads. Honestly, I love the characterisation here, it’s top notch. And that extends to the other characters as well. Some of them we only meet briefly, but you can feel the desperation, the sweat on their palms as they try and extricate themselves from a bad situation. Or the auger-like sharpness of a calculating gaze, weighing the odds, deciding when would be a good time to make that one roll that means either retirement to a money vault, or a rather rapid demise. Because our lead isn’t the only smart person around. There are others, and they all have an agenda of their own. Watching the fencing, the squabbling, the betrayals and moments of self-doubt, it helps shape this world,and show that there are people here, with agency, recognising or struggling against institutional inevitabilities.
As an aside, Parker has always been good about writing women who are as thoroughly realised and developed as characters as the men, and that trend continues here. There’s an abundance of sharp-witted, driven female characters here, with their own agency, utterly unwilling to take any crap from the protagonist, and getting on with their own lives, with their own goals. They’re not here to provide an incentive, or be the plot - they’re here to seize the initiative, and shape the world to their needs.
In the end, the characters here are, frankly, wonderful. They live, they breathe, and occasionally they die very quickly. Each of them feels like a person, and you can feel for them. If I had to pin down what makes them work, I’d say its their humanity - the pettiness, the spite, the conflict, and the moments of hope, of joy, of genuine love sprinkled through. These are people, and people matter. Which means that you keep turning the pages, to see what happens next.
Speaking of what happens next: Parker has always done narrative chess well, laying out all the pieces line by line, word by word, stepping the character and the readers through it until the story has the momentum of a hurtling boulder, born from the first few lines, way back at the beginning. So it is here. There’s a lot going on. This is a city under siege from an army sworn to destroy everything inside. And so there are rushes at gates. There are attempts to storm the walls, and heroic citizens laying down their lives for their culture. There’s saps and counter saps - I learned a surprising amount about siege mining! Basically, there’s a war on. And if we’re not often on the front lines, in the dark, feeling the grate of blade against bone, we’re watching the high level discussions about how the City can survive, what to do next, how to keep things moving from one day to the next. There’s issues with logistics, and, for example, a genuinely interesting bit on the role of fire brigades. And it works! It’s sometimes funny, always utterly convincing, and smart enough to keep your attention. The war is there, driving us forward, making our protagonist make choices, decide what to do, and what the results of those choices mean about who he is.
Anyway. At the end of the day, this is another cracking story from Parker. It has the superlative characterisation they’re known for, as well as the complex plotting, the devastating twists and turns, and the beautifully structured, thoroughly believable world. This is a fantastic story, and, as usual, I think you should give it, and Parker, a tr