There’s this relatively new rage in fantasy, and I’ve never been a fan of it. Authors—like Daniel Abraham and Joe Abercrombie—create a rich world with a lot of history, but zoom in on only one aspect of their world’s story in each book. Unlike the stories told in traditional fantasy, these are tales of characters instead of events. Think of it as the siege of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings, told solely from the viewpoints of a rider in the army of Rohan and an Orc under Sauron’s command.
Another author from the school of Abraham and Abercrombie—or perhaps the master of said school—is K.J. Parker. I have always been afraid to give Parker’s work a chance. However, when Parker’s latest work, Sharps, came across my path, I couldn’t resist giving it a try—a decision I don’t regret. While characters of other books in this subgenre—might I call it micro-fantasy?—were a turnoff for me, Parker’s characters are wonderfully unique and wholly engrossing. Where I could never really get into the stories of those other two authors, Parker pulled me in from the get-go and didn’t release me until long after I finished the last page.
Now, before you judge my opinion based on my dislike of the aforementioned authors, let me set something straight: both Abraham and Abercrombie are incredibly skilled writers, and their popularity testifies to that. The fault is entirely mine. You see, I am quite particular about my fantasy: I need a conflict of good versus evil. Sharps has that conflict. Sure, the evil isn’t quite as traditional; and the characters… well, the characters are each of them skillfully written, morally ambiguous bastards. But these bastards—a murderer, a drunk, the son of a war criminal (or hero, depending on which side you stand), a whiny girl, and a mysterious soldier—have been united against their will with a common goal in mind: to make sure that the uneasy peace between the rivaling nations of Scheria and Permia is maintained. This goal seems noble enough, as Parker makes abundantly clear through various random viewpoints just how high the economic and cultural stakes really are.
Sabotage and intrigue
From the very start, it is unclear who pulls the strings of this team of characters, or what motives are behind it, but the characters themselves—all “regular” Scherian citizens—wish only to do what they came to Permia to do: fence for sport in order to extend an olive branch in this cold war that succeeded a long and bloody conflict—and, if at all possible, make it back home safely despite their fencing tour seemingly being sabotaged at every corner.
This simple premise makes Sharps a marvelous read. Through Parker’s witty narration and intense eye for psychological detail, I immediately cared for the characters. When they were thrust into a dangerous world of political intrigue before too long, I was on the edge of my seat, flipping the pages as fast as I could. The relentless pace with which the characters are sent from one deadly situation to another, without ever truly being in control of their own fates, is breathtaking. The web of political factions and their conflicting motives is perplexing—in the best way possible. Throughout Sharps, only one question burned in my mind: how are these protagonists ever going to make it out of this alive?
Fencing with sharps
The best thing about Sharps, however, isn’t the complex scheming and plotting, nor the terrific ambiguous characters. No, the best thing about Sharps is the fencing. The characters were put together for a fencing tour through their rival nation’s cities, and thus, fencing is the unifying theme throughout this novel. Parker’s magnificent prose exalts these fencing matches to a form of art. A deadly art, for while our Scherian protagonists expected to be fighting with blunted instruments, their Permian opponents are using sharps—real weapons that inflict very real wounds. Add to that the fact that Scherian fencing is about grace and elegance, but Permian fencing is about brutally and efficiently drawing first blood, and the protagonists’ objective to stay alive without killing any Permians is suddenly given a very tangible meaning. Perhaps the only fault in Sharps is the fact that there aren’t nearly enough of these high-paced, awe-inspiring, astonishing fencing scenes.
Why should you read this book?
As a newbie reader of Parker’s works, I cannot compare Sharps to his or her various previous works. I have heard other reviewers say that this novel is his or her first more commercially viable work. The validity of that statement—which may be the reason why I loved it so much—is something I intend to find out for myself; Sharps has inspired me to read more of Parker’s books. It is an incredible story of realistically wrought characters, facing a world of intrigue, with a political complexity matching our own world, where the stakes are intensely high. As a reader, though, I simply wanted the protagonists to make it through the story in one piece. And frankly, that very fact made this novel simply mind-blowing.
Stephan received a review copy of this book courtesy of Orbit Books.