Friday Reads: Sharps, by K J Parker
I’ve been meaning to try K J Parker’s work for some time, based on my own love of historical fantasy and the urging of friends whose opinions I respect, so when I heard there would be a standalone novel about a fencing tournament, I immediately resolved to buy it. By happy chance I managed to win a copy of the paperback in a Twitter giveaway before the ebook came out, and devoured it in under a fortnight (which is fast, given how little reading time I can spare these days).
Sharps is the story of a motley group of fencers sent on a tour of a neighbouring country in an effort to foster friendly relations in the aftermath of a war. Each has his or her reason for going—or more accurately, for being coerced into going—and initially they are very much at loggerheads with one another, always bickering and complaining about the shoddy treatment they get from both their own government and their foreign hosts. Parker’s characters aren’t your typical fantasy heroes; apart from the ex-soldier and professional fencer Suidas Deutzel, they’re mostly pampered middle/upper-class youngsters who are completely out of their depth in the cut-and-thrust world of international politics.
The central characters are well-rounded and engaging, which is fortunate since Parker throws you in at the deep end, dropping in the names of political factions and historical events with no explanation, at least when in the point-of-view of characters who don’t really care about such details. After a few pages I decided to trust Parker to explain the important stuff in due course, and let the rest of it just drift over my head. There’s a lot of this world that’s alluded to but never seen or described in detail, and I’m interested to see how this connects with Parker’s other books (apparently some of the characters appear in earlier novels).
If there’s one word that sums up this book it’s schadenfreude. I’ve seen complaints that Parker’s writing style is emotionally detached but honestly, that’s the only sensible approach to this kind of biting satire. If you didn’t laugh at the absurdity as disaster piles upon disaster, you’d weep for the poor characters caught in the middle of it all. It’s been quite some time since I’ve smiled (and even laughed out loud) so much whilst reading a book.
Sharps has no discernable magic and no non-human or supernatural beings; the only thing that makes it fantasy is that this is a wholly invented world (although with its Western and Eastern Empires that use Latin and Greek respectively, and a religion based on worship of the Unconquered Sun, it almost feels more like alternate history). If the thought of having to read about politics and (God help us) banking in between the action scenes sends you running, this may not be the book for you. If, on the other hand, Nightwatch and Monstrous Regiment are amongst your favourite Terry Pratchett novels but you fancy something rather more gritty and cynical for a change, I strongly recommend you give it a try.