Gignomai met’Oc is the youngest son of a once-noble family that, decades ago, fell out of favor and was exiled from the Empire’s capital to a remote and comparably primitive colony established 70 years before the start of the novel. The met’Oc family is really twice isolated, as it lives on a plateau separate from the rest of the colony, with which it lives in an uneasy kind of not-quite-peace. While Gig’s older brothers Luso and Stheno have their own responsibilities around the house, Gig has enough free time to get into trouble, including the occasional illicit trip to the colony, where he learns more about how the colonists perceive his family and meets with his friend Furio.
The Hammer has an interesting structure, as it’s divided into 4 sections: “Seven Years Before,” “The Year When,” “Seven Years After,” and “Five Years Later.” The first two sections, while quite important, are really long prologues for “Seven Years After,” which takes up most of the book. The section titles refer to an initially mysterious event that changes Gig’s life completely and sets off the main plot of the novel, but it isn’t until late in the book that we find out what this actually was — although perceptive readers may be able to figure some of it out much earlier. As most of the motivations for Gig’s actions derive from this life-changing event, it takes a while before you really understand what’s going on, but luckily The Hammer is so well written that it’s a pleasure to read, regardless of when you pick up on the central mystery.
K.J. Parker has the same gift for smooth, easy-flowing dialogue as Lois McMaster Bujold. The characters always sound realistic and never resort to lecturing each other in full paragraphs. In fact, the rest of Parker’s prose is just as good: The Hammer is simply a blast to read, expertly paced and full of surprising and occasionally funny twists. There’s an odd contrast between the almost cheerful tone of the story and the eventual, much darker revelation about the event that sets off the main plot. K.J. Parker has also mastered the art of showing characters rather than describing them: you learn everything you need to know just by observing their actions without needing the author to spell things out for you. Sounds simple, but it’s amazing how few authors pull it off.
The setting of The Hammer is intriguing, despite — or maybe because of — its being only vaguely described. The world seems to be on the cusp of an industrial revolution (or more correctly, on the verge of re-discovering pre-industrial techniques and scientific advances that were lost in an unspecified past). While the main political intrigue, which led to the exile of the met’Oc family, happened well before the start of the novel, there are many tantalizing hints of what’s currently happening in the capital (called “Home”) and the rest of the Empire. Complicating matters, there are also some mysterious indigenous people living near the Empire’s colony. The Hammer is one of those novels that suggest there may be many more stories to be told about its world, and I for one would jump at the chance to read them.
Reinforcing this impression is the fact that several of the side characters are so fascinating, and have such an interesting story arc, that they could easily each have been main characters in another novel. The stories of Luso, Furio, Furio’s uncle, and especially Gig’s father are just as captivating as Gig’s, despite the fact that (aside from Furio and to a lesser extent his uncle) they happen mostly off-camera. It would be tremendous if K.J. Parker were to write another novel set in this fantasy universe, but focusing on the life of Gig’s father before the start of the story.
As for the main character, Gig is a great choice: he’s mischievous, driven, and has a fascinating, analytical mind. There are some sections from the points of view of his friend Furio and Furio’s uncle (the involuntary mayor-by-default of the colony), but Gig’s the real star of the story. The final sections of the novel lead to a number of difficult questions about morality and exactly to what extent the end justifies the means. You’ll end up reconsidering much of what you’ve read before (e.g. the way Gig protects some of the family’s chickens) in an entirely different light, making this a novel that very much rewards a second reading.
Put all of this together and you get The Hammer: an entertaining but deceptively deep fantasy novel that should win K.J. Parker many new fans. Highly recommended.