I was at the bookstore yesterday and noticed a copy of Sharps sitting there, hidden away between several other books. I didn’t realize it was out, my wife was still busy elsewhere in the bookstore and some of my friends have recently raved about Parker’s work, and Sharps in particular. So, I picked it up and started leafing through it. What’s the harm, right? It goes without saying that I really enjoyed the small bit of the book I browsed through, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this post.
For the first time in nearly forty years, an uneasy truce has been called between two neighbouring kingdoms. The war has been long and brutal, fought over the usual things: resources, land, money…
Now, there is a chance for peace. Diplomatic talks have begun and with them, the games. Two teams of fencers represent their nations at this pivotal moment.
When the future of the world lies balanced on the point of a rapier, one misstep could mean ruin for all. Human nature being what it is, does peace really have a chance?
Jared Shurin, Pornokitsch:
Sharps is, for lack of a more poetic way to put it, the first commercial KJ Parker novel. The one where the elevator pitch – swords, sports and diplomacy – is just as appealing as the text itself. And you know what? It is marvellous. Sharps not only has all the wit and complexity of Parker’s other work but also hearty doses of glory, romance and adventure.
Sharps also appeals through its surprisingly epic scope. Although a long way from writing a ‘chosen one’ narrative, the book has a more familiar fantasy structure than Parker’s other work: five reluctant heroes are off to save the world. Parker has repeatedly written about the impact of small people on great powers, but, in the past, the focus has been entirely on the individual. The Engineer Trilogy, for example, is about one man’s plot to change the face of the world. But the face of the world is incidental: all he wants is to go home. The Folding Knife is similar – a man sets out to forge an empire, but all he really desires is the love of his family.
With all the flying steel of Sharps, a bit of swash and buckle is inevitable, yet Parker stays on message: life and death, politics and war – all riveting stuff, but they’re never games. And for those that persist in taking these things lightly: Here they fight with messers. God help them.
Packed with sharp edges and provocative points, Sharps may be the book that fantasy readers have been waiting for. Not necessarily for Sharps qua Sharps (although it is undeniably great) but because its crowd-pleasing premise should serve as the long-awaited gateway drug to Parker’s entire world.
Sarah Chorn, Bookworm Blues:
Sharps is classic Parker, only better. Sharps is a stand-alone, and like all of Parker’s other stand-alones, I always find myself absolutely amazed by how much plot, humor, depth and action the author can pack into one book.
One of the things I love about Parker is how the back of the book never gives anything away. I never know what is going to happen until it’s happening, and that’s no different with Sharps. I usually try to guess the ending of the books I’m reading, but I gave up doing that a long time ago with Parker’s books. It’s impossible. Chances are, what you think will happen isn’t even part of the plot in the first place. Nothing is what you expect it to be, and Parker masters this with Sharps. With a book as full of intellectual characters with diverse backgrounds and unique goals and aims, the plot is as mysterious as many of the characters, and it’s just as deep.
Justin Landon, Staffer’s Book Review:
Sharps isn’t Parker’s best novel, an opinion driven largely by a lack of clarity as to the motivations behind many of the characters actions. Perhaps a commentary on the nature of war and conflict, or the “invisible hand” to steal an economics term, I found it more frustrating than intriguing. I could see many new readers coming to the novel for the sex appeal (swords) and find themselves a tad perplexed by a very twisty web of political machination. I suspect that Parker’s exceptional characterizations and perfectly precise prose will overcome those difficulties for most, but even this dedicated fan could have done with a bit more of Parker’s typical directness that’s been so prevalent in previous works.
I still consider Sharps to be one of the better novels I read this year, just not the best KJ Parker novel I’ve read this year (Devices and Desires holds the latter distinction). Parker is a magnificent writer and one I insist everyone try to read as soon as possible. Sharps is a good place to start for new fans, but I wouldn’t hesitate to start with The Folding Knife or any of the previous trilogies as well. In other words, just start reading. Please.
Parker has a fair bit of fun in other ways with Sharps – there is a nice little bit of subversion of the standard barbarians of fantasy, she has some interesting things to say on the role of sports in contemporary society, draws some rather sharp parallels with some the on-going financial and political struggles in our own world, and throughout there is a running conversation between the words on the page about the motivations and consequences of violence at scales ranging from conflict between to individuals all the way up to wars between nations. It’s not didactic, but it’s not exactly subtle either and it sure makes it look like she’s a fairly bitter cynic.
Parker has gained a very good reputation for her brand of dark, gritty, grim-dark fantasy (or whatever term you choose to call it), and from what I see in Sharps, it’s a well-earned reputation. Sharps is a book of subtly, nuance and rather fun adventure that is masterfully executed. And it only gets better the more you think about it. While it’s the first book I’ve read by Parker, it most certainly won’t be the last. Any fan of fantasy that is looking for more than the traditional absolutely needs to be reading her work.
Stefan Raets, Tor.com:
Early in the novel, someone muses that “a wise man once described violence as just another form of communication, and another wise man called fencing a conversation in steel.” In typical K.J. Parker fashion, that first “wise man” was actually named Arthur Wise, but be that as it may, a “conversation in steel” is a perfect way to sum up the spinning set of contradictions that make Sharps such a brilliant piece of genre writing. If you only read one fantasy novel this year, make it this one.
Mihir Wanchoo, Fantasy Book Critic:
The story begins in a meandering manner, wherein the author introduces all the main characters. And the lot is varied, a murderer, an ex-soldier, a son of a famous general and a couple of others. Amidst the introduction, the background situation is revealed through character dialogue as is the vogue seen in previous KJP novels.
“Sharps” is another excellent story from a devious mind and with it being given the requisite push from the publisher as well. It will only help KJP’s cause and perhaps spread the world among fantasy fans about one of the most under-appreciated fantasy writers of the 21st century. If you haven’t read any of her books, do so soon if you want something different in your current fantasy reads.
I haven’t read much of Parker’s work, besides some of his/her short fiction collected in various anthologies, which I enjoyed (more-or-less), but the more I hear about her, and the more I hear him referred to as a nihilistic Daniel Abraham (I think it was Justin Landon that made this observation), the more I think I need to dig deeper in the rest of her/his library. Sharps looks like a good place to start.
Thinking about it, one of the major reasons why I’ve always looked past Parker’s work is the manufactured mystery surrounding the author. We know K.J. Parker is a pseudonym. It seems like there’s probably a connection to Tom Holt. But that’s about all we know. I understand the value and theory of pseudonyms — if you’re curious, Daniel Abraham has written about them; I don’t agree with it all, but there are some good points, regardless — but in Parker’s case the over-the-top effort to pull the wool over readers’ eyes, an ongoing effort by Parker and his/her publishers, is distracting and turns me away from having an interest in the books. Whenever it comes time to choose a new novel, I generally gravitate towards authors who I feel I can make a personal connection with, whether through the online social sphere, or through their books. Parker seems determined to get in the way of that connection. It’s odd and off-putting, especially with no good explanation for why s/he does it.
Parker writes in a straight-forward, direct way. The prose is easy, which lets the reader concentrate on the story and not fuss about deciphering the text itself. There’s no mythic vocabulary, no chanting in italics, no poetry (whew) and not a whiff of Ancient Elvish. Parker proves that you can write about complex, big ideas in plain language. The books are deceptively simple and wonderfully quick to read.
I don’t want to give you the impression that Parker’s books are all bone-grinding and economic theory, because they aren’t. Some of fantasy’s hardest warriors lurk within these pages – Bardas Loredon, Suidas Deutzel and Poldarn among them. Deadly fighters from all walks of life: highly trained and extremely motivated. Parker’s books also contain some of the most compellingly vicious fight scenes.
Nor do I want to give the impression that Parker is all bloodshed and battles – the real tension comes with the characters themselves, and the books’ most exciting conflicts are completely internal. The Engineer trilogy is about a man who uproots the entire world because he wants to go home – it is a love story, albeit on a sweeping scale. The Company is about the friendship between a group of exhausted veterans. The Folding Knife and The Hammer are both stories of families: the unmatched love and hate that links parents and children, brothers and sisters. And Sharps has a bit of everything: star-crossed lovers, a coming of age tale, broken families and wild ambition. A half-dozen compelling characters, each with their own story to follow.
Quick to read? Vicious fight scenes? Distinctly character driven? Jeez, it’s like Jared’s speaking specifically to my tastes. Fine, fine, Jared and Justin, and all those other Parker fans. You’ve convinced me, even if I still think that Parker’s pseudonym shenanigans are obnoxious. Onward to Sharps.