The Company by KJ Parker
Published by Orbit UK, October 2008
(ARC copy received.)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
So: the war’s over, the soldiers return home – what happens next?
K J Parker’s latest standalone novel examines such a situation, not often looked at but one clearly relevant in a Fantasy world: what happens to soldiers after the fighting is over?
The basic story here (though to be fair, KJ’s stories are rarely basic) deals with a company of men, skilled in their wartime efforts, who all (or nearly all) have gone back to their homes and their civilian lives. As you might expect, life outside the army is quite different. The impression given here is that after the war, despite the company’s heroism, non-combatants either know little or are unimpressed now that things are returning to normal seven years after. There is a return to the relative simplicity of civilian life and the mundane actions of small village communities. Bravery counts for little.
One of those returning, admittedly later than some of the others in this tale, is recently-retired Colonel (or at times General) Teuche Kunessin, commander of A Company. He has plans. Having leased the island of Sphoe upon his decommissioning, he plans to use the abandoned facilities there and create his own colony with all of his ex-comrades-in-arms. He returns to the village of his birth to recruit his compatriots – cattle farmer Kudei Gaion, defence school teacher Thouridos (nicknamed ‘Fly’) Alces, shopkeeper Aidi Proaipsen and tanner Muri Achaiois - and make good on a promise they made when in the army.
His compadres, realising the strength of the bonds of wartime friendship, rather conveniently drop everything, sell up, buy resources and get hitched in order to make their future life of self-sufficiency a reality. Unfortunately, despite Colonel Kunessin’s reputation for being methodical and meticulous, (and being a KJ Parker novel) things do not go as planned.
This is KJ Parker’s first standalone. For those who found The Engineer Trilogy too long and slow, this might be a better option. It has many of those signature touches of Parker – the slow delivery, the detached narrative, the details of how to make and build things, which this one does. It wouldn’t be a KJ Parker story unless it told us of such activities as how to build a boat, rebuild burnt-down buildings, go panning in a river, build cranes, herd cattle and smelt metal. As ever, KJ’s tale is an education as well as an entertainment, which can, in equal measures, intrigue and annoy.
It also has that slow, yet painstaking, unravelling of a dark tale which KJ has achieved so well in previous books. Again, here it starts slowly but builds cleverly to its conclusion. It is an unsettling story, one which deals with the basest of human actions rather than holds the moral high ground. To some extent the novel subverts the usual Fantasy clichés to suggest some enigmatic ideas that may make the unwary reader uncomfortable. Strangely, despite initial appearances, it is not a tale of heroism, though the protagonists are wartime ‘heroes’. Instead, being KJ Parker at the author’s most cynical, it deals more with the darker values of avarice, greed, snobbery, deception, murder, adultery and cowardice. Though it tells tales of bravery it is more about survival, both in wartime and peacetime.
We also see here another recurrent theme in Parker’s books, that of the importance of gender in this quasi-agrarian situation. There are very different roles for the sexes here, with wives that are bought and relationships are forged in a variety of logical yet rationally unemotional ways. The two are not always compatible. Without giving plot revelations away, their interactions and positions in this micro-society are an important part of this novel and Parker emphasises here how and why those differences between the soldiers and the soldier’s wives are important.
On the SFFWorld forums I’ve précis’ed the book as ‘imagine Lost meets The Italian Job’. At its simplest, it is a survivalist tale combined with a meticulously designed if not executed crime caper. Not all is what it appears to be and much of the fun is watching unexpected things unfold. Though not as extraordinary as some might suggest, it is a very good book, though Parker’s singular worldview may not be for all.
As has been said at times of Parker’s previous work, it is a bitter, dark, cynical tale, yet also a masterfully planned and executed book, one that builds on ever-revealing characterisation and back-story, leading slowly yet inexorably to its final conclusion. Many readers may not like the ending, and although you may not feel happy about it, it is, like Parker’s previous efforts, knowingly and coldly logical.
Mark Yon, September 2008
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