Sharps by K.J. Parker
Review by Bowden P. (Trey)
First, I am a fencer. Have been since I graduated college – I fence all three weapons, and honestly need to get back in practice. Sharps helped me decide that. Why? Well, it’s a really good book about fencers. A soldier. Killers. And two countries on the edge of a war…
The novel starts by introducing the reader to the characters and their circumstances, thought not always their names. The most memorable is by Giraut, a student of no account and womanizer of some ability, and his recollection of events that lead to him bleeding out in a tower. Phrantzes, former fencing champion and staff officer to General Carnufex during the War, telling his friend about meeting a woman – scandalous because she’s a former prostitute and he’s been a solitary bachelor for most of his life. Suidas Deutzel, another former champion and soldier, fallen to reduced circumstances and driven to look for work. Adulescentulus, Addo, General Carnufex’s son (ordered to join the team by his father) and Iseutz (who joined the team to avoid an arranged marriage and can’t back due to her pride)we don’t meet until a bit later. As a group, they are the national fencing team for Scheria, sent on a tour of Permia, a country they’ve been at peace with for seven years and war for seventy. A war that only concluded when General Carnufex drowned one of their great cities and the Permians ran out of money to pay their mercenary troops. This tour by the fencing team is the largest and most important diplomatic engagements between the two countries that are again on the edge of war. And fencing is a national obsession in Permia, though they do things a bit differently there…
The tour starts inauspiciously with bad roads, a missing courier station garrison and a bandit attack. One might almost think that someone didn’t want them to start. It also introduces a recurring phrase throughout the book, “Here they fence with messers. God help them.” A messer is less of a sword and more of an over large knife like a machete or billhook, often used for agricultural work and other uses, like killing pigs, banditry and self defense.
I genuinely enjoyed the book. The characters were interesting and had a some good depth, motivations and unique personalities to them, even though Iseutz initially comes across as shrill. Fencing has been described as a conversation in steel, or chess at lightning speed, and in Sharps it has elements of both. Conversation and chess also play roles in the book as well, plus politics, intrigue and assassinations.
One thing that periodically ‘snapped the suspenders of disbelief’ was the world. Then again, I’ll forgive Shakespeare his world building, so I’ll forgive Parker his. What was it? Well, the organizational levels of both nations (and even beyond) seemed, industrial. Intelligence divisions. Accounting. Finance. All of these play roles here. Yet, gunpowder and explosives are curiously absent – which if I remember by history of weapons correctly were key in the development of the rapier and small sword as the role of armor diminished. But the king of ranged weapons seems to be the bow and arrow (not the crossbow). And I have a hard time believing that General Carnufex pulled off his stunt without explosives to blow the dams. No matter. I’ll forgive it for now, because I’ve accepted worse things in other fantasy novels.
The verdict? 4½ stars. ½
Likes: The fencing; Giraut’s view point – very human, likable some times but always understandable; Not spelling everything out till the end; Letting the reader discover things for themselves; The characters, even Tzimisces the political officer and spy had sympathetic moments (and there were others when I’d have wanted to roast him over a fire to start talking); Deutzel Suidas, the fencing champion, former soldier and aspiring drunk who has hidden depths.
Dislikes: Having my suspenders of disbelief snapped in the world building.
Suggested for: Fans of historical novels, particularly the enlightenment era. Those that enjoyed the early Merovingean nights series. Anyone who enjoys fencing or enjoyed fencing at one point in their lives. Sabatini fans, particularly Scaramouche.