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Book Review: The Folding Knife, by K J Parker

Basso the Magnificent. Basso the Great. Basso the Wise. 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 first encountered K J Parker’s work last summer, when Sharps was released in paperback and ebook. I loved the combination of sardonic wit and understated worldbuilding, so when I discovered that Fantasy Faction had chosen another Parker standalone for their September book club choice, I couldn’t resist joining in.

At first I found it heavy going, even compared to Sharps. The protagonist, Basso, is a banker, and the early sections detail his rise to power as First Citizen of the Vesani Republic. Parker’s narrative style is very dry, often committing the cardinal sin of telling rather than showing, and yet the prose is so polished and Basso so compelling a character that the book drags you along in spite of yourself as you wonder what enormity he’s going to commit next. Both stylistically and plot-wise it reminded me a great deal of I, Claudius, with its cut-throat (sometimes literally!) politics in a world of senators and slaves.

As I mentioned above, I love Parker’s worldbuilding. There might not be any fantastical elements, but the history geek in me revels in all the real-world parallels. This book is clearly set in the same world as Sharps, but probably somewhat earlier; at any rate, it resembles an alternate history of the late Roman Empire, in that there is an Eastern Empire ranged against a motley collection of smaller states that resulted from the collapse of the Western Empire. The Vesani Republic itself resembles Venice: it relies almost entirely on trade, having little or no agricultural territory, and since the ruling class consists of merchants rather than knights, it hires mercenaries to fight on its behalf. It’s as if the Roman Empire dissolved gracefully instead of being overrun by barbarians, and thus went (politically) straight from the fourth century to the seventeenth without any pesky Middle Ages in-between!

My sole gripe with this book was the character of Basso’s sister. Admittedly he does something terrible to her and her family early on in the story, but her bitter hatred of him, and her resultant campaign to ruin his life in a myriad petty ways, started to grate eventually. On the other hand, Basso’s dogged love for her despite her enmity does serve to give him a touch of nobility to balance his other, less admirable qualities.

Back on Fantasy Faction, an issue that provoked much interesting debate was “what is Basso’s one mistake?” I won’t discuss that—or the metaphoric resonances of the title—here, for fear of spoilers. All I can say is that this book impressed the hell out of me, and will stay with me for a long time. Whether or not you consider it to be fantasy, The Folding Knife is a fine novel and well worth (re)reading. Though I fear that next time, knowing what is to come, the prologue may reduce me to tears…