Sharps by K.J. Parker
Sharp swords, dirty books and pickled cabbage. Why has everything on this trip got to be horrible?
The neighboring kingdoms of Permia and Scheria have always been enemies. Some of their citizens like it this way — particularly those of the military aristocracies who are valued (and therefore kept in power) by their countrymen when the two kingdoms are at war. The last war ended, though, when General Carnufex of Scheria managed to divert a few rivers and flood a major Permian city, killing its entire population of thousands of people. It’s been years since General Carnufex (now known as “the Irrigator”) pulled out of Permia and the two countries, separated by a demilitarized zone, have mostly left each other alone.
Many people in each country (especially those of the lower classes) would like to forget the past and try to forge friendship and cooperation with the neighboring country. To this end (ostensibly) the Scherian government, with the help of its church and bank (a major force in Scherian society, since it holds the money) has decided to send a peace delegation consisting of five fencers and a couple of managers across the demilitarized zone and into Permia. The Permians are crazy about fencing and will surely treat the Scherian fencers as adored heroes.
The team is made up of six characters who are not especially eager to go to Permia. There’s Iseutz, an aggressive woman who is escaping an arranged marriage; Addo, the Irrigator’s useless youngest son; Suidas, the alcoholic Scherian fencing champion who can’t afford his girlfriend and turns out to be a berserker; Giraut, who accidentally killed the senator who was about to push through some major reforms; Phrantzes, an accountant and former fencing champion who just married a prostitute; and Tzimisces, an inscrutable man who seems to be in charge.
Each character has his own story and his own reason for reluctantly joining the team. It turns out that they were right to be reluctant because the problems begin even before they get to the border and the entire trip is an exercise in suffering. Nothing goes as it’s supposed to and the team has to deal with equipment failure, travel delays, bandits, bad weather, hunger, fatigue, riots, fire, language barriers, unpredictable mercenaries, an aspiring writer, and lots of pickled cabbage. But worst of all is the discovery that they won’t be fencing the way they’re used to because the Permians don’t use fencing foils — they use “sharps.” They’re also expected to fight with a nasty curved blade aptly called a “messer.” The Scherian fencers know they may not survive, but refusing to play the Permians’ way could ignite another war. To make things even worse, the team gradually starts to suspect that they are being used by some agency in their own country to further its political or economic goals…
I haven’t read all of K.J. Parker’s novels, but I’ve read enough to know that anything s/he writes goes directly to my TBR list. No need to ask my friends, no need to check Amazon or my favorite review sites, just put it on the list, and somewhere near the top. So, really, I shouldn’t have to say anything about Sharps except that “it’s written by K.J. Parker.” But just so you won’t think I took the easy way out, I’ll say some more stuff:
Sharps is completely entertaining from page one. The story is compelling, mysterious, often hilarious (though it’s definitely not a comedy), and written in Parker’s epigrammatic, no-nonsense, perfectly paced style. Parker’s world is described briefly but comprehensively enough that we understand the relevant political, economic, and social pressures. Parker uses these pressures to consider such topics as tax law, land redistribution, slavery, competition, class warfare, and trade relations.
Each of Parker’s characters is introduced quickly but thoroughly enough to engage our empathy, each is fun to listen to (and they have a terrific dynamic together), and each develops significantly over the course of the story, though a few of them never completely reveal themselves and I didn’t believe in the romance that developed between two of the characters. (This didn’t detract from the story, but a more believable relationship would have been much more satisfying.) My favorite character was Suidas Deutzel; I would love to see Parker write a prequel to Sharps from his perspective. (Please, K.J. Parker, whoever you are?)
Sharps is a novel that I’ll read again — something I very rarely do. I’m sure it will be one of my favorite novels of 2012.