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  1. #1
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    Sharps by K.J. Parker

    A sort of raw-thoughts mini-review; just outstanding work, though of course there is no magic, no ancient evil to save the world from, no world leader heroes etc, etc; just KJ Parker awesome fantasy

    Sharps is vintage KJ Parker but also the most complex of the author's standalone novels, while bringing elements from all the author's oeuvre and connecting with earlier works like Purple and Black which is alluded in the book - though of course as it is KJ Parker, the details may not be precisely the same in so far the Empire in P&B worshiped the Invincible Sun (like the Western Empire and Scheria here, Scheria being the country of our heroes and either former province of the Western Empire or never conquered depending on whom you listen to) while here the Eastern Empire (former conqueror and now ally of of our heroes' opponents, the Permians) to which the allusions are made worships the Fire God (s?)

    But this is one of author's trademarks, describing a deep but mutable history depending on who is writing it...

    Anyway back to the book and the story goes like this (as I do not have yet an e-version, I cannot c/p quotes but the novel is full of quotable lines and i hope to have some for the full review later in the year):

    - two former border provinces of the Western and Eastern Empires left independent more or less as detritus after the Empires long war a few hundred years ago, manage to get into a war of their own for the possession of a barren border land-strip that is rumored to contain huge mineral deposits

    More populous Scheria and richer Permia go at it for a long time - some four decades, Scheria with conscript manpower, Permia mostly with Imperial and barbarian mercenaries, "the Blue Skins" and the Aram Chantat respectively, in addition to their less numerous conscripts - but ultimately they both run out of money and people and the military aristocracy in both countries which ran the war falls from power and becomes mostly bankrupt, while the Bank in Scheria and the mine owners in Permia have an uneasy seven year truce going at the beginning of the novel in 614 AUC.

    However the last and most notable feat of war, the total flooding and submerging under water of a major Permian city, by the best general of the war (and some say, best such in centuries), Scherian general Carnufex known forever as "The Irrigator" sort of gave Scheria the "moral win" though as mentioned both countries are almost bankrupt as the treaty negotiations go nowhere fast so the riches of the DMZ cannot be exploited to prop both economies.

    Adding some recent instability in the Permian economy as their mainstay, silver mining is getting competition in the Empire and the plotting of the still standing not bankrupt members of the aristocracy like Carnufex (retired with honors but privately seething at the current Bank run government of Scheria) and the situation is quite unstable, when a new factor that can make or break it appears, namely a Scherian fencing team invited to visit fencing-mad Permia and give three exhibit games.

    And in the first few pages we get to meet the mostly unlikely members of the team:

    Suidas Deutzel (mid 30's), fencing champion of Scheria, habitual drunk with an expensive actress girlfriend and numerous creditors to satisfy from the winnings game to game, former war hero or war criminal depending on who tells it, who needs the money the Scherian government offers him for a trip to Permia; of course as he is not that stable there is a clear possibility he may run amok and restart the war single handed

    Iseutz Bringas (early 20's) - the one girl on the team, she is tall and not that polished, a former junior ladies champion from a middle management bank family, who accepts the highly risky tour as alternative to a political marriage

    Giraut Byrennius (early 20's) - perennial student from an upper class family, highly skilled amateur fencer who prefers bedding upper class university girls to pretty much anything else including work and study, until his latest "conquest" leads him into big trouble, so it is the gallows or Permia

    Addo (Adulescentulos) Carnufex (24), youngest son of the general (out of 4, three surviving, one dead in the war), good fencer as all the nobility, pacifist, chess master, highly intelligent and attractive who worships his father who in turn seems to regard him with contempt for his pacifist views

    And then we have the team manager/coach, 51 year old wool merchant Phrantzes, former 3 time fencing champion of Scheria (record at the time), former supply major under Carnufex in the war, recently and somewhat scandalously married to a 37 year old lady of foreign and unseemly origins (former prostitute etc) who is "convinced" to lead the team despite being manifestly unsuited and unwilling

    Supervising them, political officer Timizces, anonymous looking and always disappearing when bad things are ready to happen and the s**t starts looking like hitting the fan.

    And of course there are the secrets, personal and political, the power players, real and pretend, the machinations and the intrigue.

    High stakes indeed and unclear what chance at survival our five unlikely heroes have...

    Coming back now to a discussion of themes and characters, for people familiar with the author's work, Suidas is not unlike the heroes of The Company, Addo not unlike Gignomai, Iseutz not unlike the heroine with the same name in the Fencer trilogy though with less baggage, while Giraut and Phrantzes are the seemingly expendable nobodies that appear in various places (including for example Ziani in the Engineer trilogy); what is the right thing to do, can the honorable thing be wrong and the dishonorable thing be right, the ambiguity of morality as dictated by circumstances etc etc - among the very numerous super touches of the book there is a game the heroes play when each names a thing they are sure they would not do under any circumstances and the cynical Suidas creates scenarios under which they agree they actually would do it -, all the familiar themes as mentioned combined with great prose and world building.

    Outstanding and I would say this is probably the best KJ Parker novel so far and definitely will be a huge favorite mine (for now of course it is #1 of 2012 but there is IM Banks and the Culture coming soon...) alongside The Hammer, The Scavenger trilogy and Purple and Black which so far are my personal favorites from the author's work

  2. #2
    It never entered my mind algernoninc's Avatar
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    I all sounds very promising, with a large number of characters for a single volume. usually the author chooses to focus on one main character, with less emphasis on the supporting cast. I'll be reading Sharps as soon as it becomes available, maybe check out the novellas you mention before starting the book. They are the only K J Parker I haven't read until now, and I liked everything else I tried, with the exception of The Company.

  3. #3
    Nobody in Particular kcf's Avatar
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    I quite enjoyed Sharps. An excerpt from my review is below.

    Sharps is the first Parker novel I’ve read (I have read a short story or two previously) and I’m surprised it’s been so long with her impressively positive reputation among my fellow blogger/reviewers. This of course led to me having quite high expectations for this book. The result – it’s complicated. My initial reaction and one that I held throughout reading is that it’s a good book, a really good book, but I still was expecting something…more. However in retrospect, I only become more and more impressed with what Parker does with Sharps. Parker’s writing is polished, it’s clearly the work of seasoned writer and lacks any obvious weaknesses. Parker’s writing is subtle and complex, and my appreciation of this only improves with time.

    I like a book with sophisticated and nuanced politics – the truth is that few books in the SFF genre really pull politics off very well. Generally, even books that gain a reputation for having complex politics typically show the nuance of an idealistic congressional candidate running for their first term in office (suffice to say, I hope for more). Parker effortlessly weaves subtle, complex politics into the background and foreground of Sharps. And it’s the effortlessly aspect that stands out so starkly – even the SFF books that do politics really well leave me thinking how the author really worked hard to make it so. That’s not the feeling I had with Sharps – in retrospect, the superbly presented politics were so well constructed that they truly felt effortless. And while to some it may seem to be only a semantic difference, to me it’s an important distinction that places Parker’s writing among the best in genre, and perhaps at the top.

    Parker builds well-rounded, flawed and realistic characters. Read pretty much any review of Parker’s writing and it gets discussed, so I’m not going to go beat a dead horse on this one. But I do want to discuss a very fine line that Parker walks in dealing with the points of view in Sharps. As the plot develops and our band of wayward fencers continues along a journey in which nothing seems to go as planned, a sense builds that there is something more going on. It’s clear from the very beginning that there is more than meets the eye, though exactly what that is remains a mystery. And while some will call it a spoiler, I’ll go ahead and say it – at least one of those fencers knows what’s going and has plans that go well beyond fencing. Only we don’t know who or what until pretty much the moment of the big reveal (and we even get a red herring or two along the way). And here’s the fine-line – we see points of view from all of the characters throughout the book in a limited third person perspective – a perspective where we get into the heads of the characters and come to ‘know’ them pretty well. Yet the mystery remains. I’ll be honest, I don’t know how Parker pulled it off, and sometimes I’m not sure she does. But in retrospect, even though I sometimes wonder if she really pulled it off or not, I can’t help but admit it was handled masterfully.

  4. #4
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    Sharps by KJ Parker

    The neighbouring kingdoms of Permia and Scheria fought one another for forty years before the Scherian general Carnufex, known in infamy as 'The Irrigator', flooded a Permian city and killed thousands. The war ended with an uneasy truce and the two nations maintaining a neutral zone between their kingdoms, containing the very territory they spilled so much blood over. To help restore relations and build on their mutual interest in the sport of swordplay, the Scherians dispatch a team of fencers to tour Permia. The fencers quickly learn that they may just be pawns in a larger game as factions in both kingdoms attempt to use their visit as an excuse to restart the war or to seize power in their own land. But no-one has reckoned on this particular team and their individual motivations and ambitions...

    Sharps is the latest stand-alone novel from the enigmatic K.J. Parker. Parker is known for her fascination with medieval and renaissance weapons of war and basing entire narratives around them. Usually these narratives work on multiple levels, with both extensive literal use of the item in question and also its use as a metaphor. In Sharps Parker returns to her love of the sword and the sport of fencing, which she last studied in detail in her very first novel, the excellent Colours in the Steel, fifteen years ago. Sharps is a very different book, however, to both that novel and her normal output.

    Most of Parker's books focus on a single character in detail, whilst Sharps has an ensemble cast. The four fencers are the main focus, along with their manager/trainer and their redoubtable political liaison officer. Parker also visits a whole bunch of bit-players on both sides of the border as different factions try to make use of the situation for their own ends. The result is a busier feel than most of her novels, which tend to be more intensely focused (sometimes to the point of claustrophobia). This works well, with each character set up and well-motivated in a concise fashion and then developed through the novel through their interactions with one another. Each character - the deadly war veteran Suidas, the manager Phrantzes, the foppish Giraut, the level-headed Addo (the son of the Irrigator) and noble Iseutz (the only female member of the team) - has his or her secrets, demons from the past or hidden motives, and Parker flips between them with verve and ease. Her trademark dry, black humour is also very much in evidence.

    Sharps is an offbeat epic fantasy novel. Blood is spilled, thousands are killed and the fates of entire nations hang in the balance. Yet we see very little of it. The bulk of the book is set in the fencers' carriage (or one of them, as the have to change wagons several times due to various acts of mayhem) as they talk to one another, discuss the political situation, play chess and argue over various matters. Intermittently the novel feels like Waiting for Godot as rewritten by George R.R. Martin, with a dialogue polish by Terry Pratchett. The situation outside the carriage changes rapidly, with riots taking place and civil war threatening, but the four fencers only hear about it second-hand through confused reports, some of which may be misinformation fed to them deliberately. Neither the characters or we really know what's going on, and both will be baffled for much of the novel's length as increasingly random events take place, only being explained in the revelatory conclusion (after which a re-read of the novel with foreknowledge of the end could be an enlightening move).

    Sharps (****) is one of Parker's strongest novels to date. The characters are among her most memorable and fully-fleshed out, the structure is unusual but well-handled and allows for the politics, intrigue and backstabbing to be undertaken in a manner that does not descend into cliche. There's also a mordant wit which is deeply satisfying (especially when Parker directs it against some of the corniness of the fantasy genre). Parker even gives the book an ending which makes everything feel worthwhile, rather than pointless (a traditional weakness of some of her earlier books). The only problem is that the opening sections can feel very stilted until you get used to Parker's approach to this storyline. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

  5. #5
    Registered User MattNY's Avatar
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    Great reviews from all. KJ Parker is still one of the many authors I have not had the time to check out. I own all three novels of the Engineer trilogy, which looks really good. Considering what a machine Parker seems to be (nearly a book every single year it seems), I am just getting further and further behind.

  6. #6
    Sorry to revive a dead thread, but I just finished Sharps (and really enjoyed it) and I have a few questions:

    SPOILERS TO FOLLOW, BEWARE.





    So, many reviewers seem to praise the revelatory conclusion (to quote Wert here), but that makes me just think I've missed something. The whole conspiracy is to start a war between Permia and Scheria so that the landed aristocracy (and in particular the Carnufex) can have a war and regain power. But that's not exactly revelatory- the characters are guessing that that's the purpose of the mission 150 pages in. The only real twist is when Tsimaches informs Suidas that one of the party is an assassin, which happens about 30 pages before the climax- once you have that revelation, which comes out of nowhere, the only candidate that really made sense was Addo, whom it turned out to be. So then the only real difference that this makes is that we now know that Addo was meant to assassinate the first minister (and assassinated the other ministers). So... Is this really that revelatory then? I'm pretty confused about how this squares in with the rest of the events in the book- were the bandits who attacked them just bandits after all? Why does Tsimaches in one of his rare POV sections claim that the others would hate him if they knew of his mission, when his mission seems to be to promote peace between Permia and Scheria, as is shown when he tells Suidas to stop the assassin from killing the First Minister? I really did enjoy the novel, but I feel like I'm either missing something big (which is always possible) or that the conspiracy plotline was kind of... lame overall.

  7. #7
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    I am considering picking up this book but I'm having a hard time determining if I need to read anything else first? What is the reading order for KJ Parker's books or is there one? Thanks.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Justin2209 View Post
    I am considering picking up this book but I'm having a hard time determining if I need to read anything else first? What is the reading order for KJ Parker's books or is there one? Thanks.
    You don't need to read anything else before reading Sharps. It is a standalone that is not really connected at all with Parker's previous works.

    Same for the other books. From what I understand, there really isn't a reading order. The books are loosely connected to each other, if they are connected at all. Except within the trilogies, obviously.
    Last edited by Haliax; April 8th, 2013 at 03:30 PM.

  9. #9
    I found the book well written, but did not think that much of it. There are no heroes, no villains, no quests, no evil, no good, no sweeping imagination, no interesting cultures or people, no magic, modest action. Instead, there is policital intrigue, some clever/amusing dialogue and misc. characters that feel real. Thats it.

    Oh sure, I dont need all of the baggage of traditional fantasy, its tired, its old, I totally get that. But when someone like Abercrombie or Kay break the mold, you still get larger than life characters, heroes or villains (or at least characters you can root for or against), and an epic feel. Sharps felt smaller by comparison to me, more...well, pointless if you will forgive the pun.

    Am I alone in the wilderness on this one?

  10. #10
    Registered User Snowy's Avatar
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    No, I am with you.

    I have just finished it after seeing it come second in the poll in here for the best books of last year, and never having heard of it. Ooh, new author and potentially a cracking little book to discover, except....it wasn't.

    The story just sort of meanders, none of the characters were very memorable, the whole thing left me quite nonplussed as to why it was so highly rated.

    Oh, and I must point out, the Kindle version is atrocious - no chapter formatting at all, you just move from one chapter to another with a paragraph break, so literally go from one POV to another with nothing to signpost it - jarring to say the least.

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