Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Novel Review - K.J. Parker's The Folding Knife

Basso the Magnificent. Basso the Great. Basso the Wise. Basso the Murderer. 

The First Citizen of the Vesani Republic 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'm a big fan of K.J. Parker: last year, The Company left a definite impression and the free short stories floating around the web convinced me that it was more than just one good book. This book, really, is the book that sets my admiration for Parker in cement.

The Folding Knife concerns the life and exploits of Bassianus Severus, or Basso as he's referred to the majority of the time, the First Citizen of the Republic of Vesani. As the blurb states, Basso is an incredibly intelligent man, massively self-absorbed and seemingly in possession of the world's supply of luck. We meet him at a very young age and follow him to the point at which the prologue (a forty years later deal) kicks in. What you have here is more or less a typical rise and fall from power. At least, in summary it would seem that way.

So is it? Kind of. Truth is, it's never made particularly clear what the story is about. It'd be hard to argue against the novel being a character exploration, but at the same time the character is never actively focussed on or explored directly. The story will spend lots of time going over details of banking manoeuvres and international politics and military procedures, but barely an emotive word finds it's way into Parker's incredibly readable prose. Only in dialogue is emotive sentiment expressed, and even there far more is left unsaid than actually vocalised. So whilst I'd argue it is a character study, it doesn't really do much direct character studying.

The novel resolutely refuses to draw upon a typical arc that is assumed from a"rise and fall" type story. No event or plot point has simple or clear narrative ramifications. A lot of the time events feel almost incidental and heavy with meaning at the same time. It's a very unusual balance that is struck, but one that works, somehow.

There is a tendency, too, within such stories to cast the main character in something of a MacBethian tragedy, and again The Folding Knife would seem to fall pretty well into that category based on summaries. Much of the morality play is so confused as to become as hard to untangle the proverbial Gordian Knot, however, and clear cut drama is in short supply. If this is a tragedy, it's not playing by the typical rules.

Or maybe it's a political thriller? The politics is most definitely a focus here, unlike the aforementioned character development. Primarily we see Basso's manoeuvring within his bank then within his position as ruler of Vesani, with wars and assassination attempts and economic manipulations on an international level. The writing contains a constant momentum that makes this story such a breezy and engaging read despite it's levels. The most obvious label for this book, on reflection, would be a fantasical political thriller, but I feel this glosses over the core of what makes the novel so compelling.

Rather than the apparent ambivalence weakening the novel, this lack of focus works with Parker's subtlety to tell a very powerful story in between the lines. The unusual structure, too, does not suffer where you might expect it to from it's apparent looseness. This is an intricate tale, told through symbols and details, and it retains an unpredictability of sorts despite the fact that we've already been told that it ends.

Near the end, one of the characters speaks about how everything, in the end, boils down to an us vs them situation. Ironic, considering just how complex everything in the story winds up being. This is a world where there is no clear reasons or set outcomes, with characters who are embodiements of grey morality. It's a complex and ambiguous novel, an easy novel to read and a novel that requires thought to dissemble. More than any of these, it's a story. And a darkly humourous, subtly tragic and fast paced one too.

Easily the best thing I've read by an already formidable writer, and it very much deserves your time.


  1. I've been toying with the idea of getting this book for a while -- it looks quite interesting. I'll have to add it to my list of stuff to read...

  2. Obviously, comes with a high reccomendation from me.