The back cover blurb describes K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife like this:
Basso the Magnificent. Basso the Great. Basso the Wise. The First Citizen of the Vesani public is an extraordinary man. He is ruthless, cunning, and above all, lucky. He brings wealth, power, and prestige to his people. But with power comes unwanted attention, and Basso must defend his nation and himself from threats foreign and domestic. In a lifetime of crucial decisions, he’s only ever made one mistake. One mistake, though, can be enough.
I would describe The Folding Knife as the perfect hybrid of Greek tragedy and Shakespearean history. Or like watching Icarus taking off on his doomed flight, knowing that every wingstroke upwards is just additional distance he has to fall. In an alternative world that evokes the Mediterranean region during the first century BC, Basso possesses every imaginable political skill. Brilliant and determined, he revolutionizes the Vesani Empire, and in so doing, puts into motion the wheels of his own destruction.
K.J. Parker is a brilliant writer. Not only does (s)he manage to create a world that, while completely imagined, reads with the attention to detail of forensic anthropology or a historical reconstruction, (s)he does it without ever sacrificing the narrative. The story moves inevitably forward towards the doomed conclusion, but does so without telegraphing what the disaster will be. Basso manages to wrest a lucky resolution from so many seeming disasters that when the final tragedy does occur, it hits like a body blow to the reader as much as to Basso.
Along with an absorbing story, Parker manages to discuss economic policy, the ideology of warfare and empire, and the politics of international relations in a way that is intellectually rigorous while still being based in the narrative. Unlike many authors who write thinly-veiled attacks on current policies, Parker provides a theoretical critique of many ideologies that are relevant to the current financial crisis and American military policy without ever crossing that line into polemic or lecture. Rather (s)he proves the relevance of fantasy, not just as escapism, but as explication for the human condition.
The only criticism I have for The Folding Knife is a small one: a character is trying to explain adapting to foreign cultures and says it is like setting your watch when you get off the boat in a new port, which struck me as anachronistic.
K.J. Parker is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. Both this novel and Purple and Black are intellectually satisfying without being pedantic or dogmatic. The prose is crystalline in purity. Each word is important, though the full relevance may not be obvious for several chapters. This is fantasy of the highest order, without actually containing a single fantastical element. There are no elves, dragons, or magic — just an author creating an entirely new world out of thin air, and polishing it to such a mirror sheen that it can be held up to reflect who the reader is at their core. If I could give this book more than five stars, I would. As it is, I highly recommend The Folding Knife to anyone who can read.