Imagine for a second that the current A-list writers in fantasy literature are in high school. Joe Abercrombie would be the jock, Patrick Rothfuss would be the theater kid, Scott Lynch would be the sketchy guy who might steal your girlfriend, Steven Erickson and R. Scott Bakker would be the hipsters with black glasses, and K.J. Parker would be the smart one who is college bound and belongs to the fencing team. This is the way you need to approach K.J. Parker!
Let me say that I’m a fan of K.J. Parker, not a diehard fan by any means, but I’ve read most of the author’s work and I even have a signed limited edition of Purple and Black. Since I’m familiar with Parker’s style I knew what I was going into when I first cracked open this 635 page book. Parker writes in a very academic style, at times it can feel as if you’re reading something official, similar to a textbook. This “academic” style is both a blessing and a curse. This attention to detail really gives the story an authentic feel to it, but at times it can feel ponderous and downright boring. This book was by no means one of the biggest books I’ve ever read, but at times I felt as though it would never end. I’ll try to give a detailed synopsis of what the story is about below.
Ziani Vaatzes is an engineer living in a country known as Mezentia which is a Republic that sets strict guidelines for their citizens. Mezentia is a very technologically advanced society; they have advanced weaponry that sets them apart from their neighboring countries. Their engineers must adhere to strict guild guidelines when it comes to building of any kind. To alter this technology is not only considered taboo, but can result in exile or even death. Ziani Vaatzes finds himself sentenced to death for breaking this rule and altering a piece of machinery. After escaping, Ziani makes his way to Civitas Eremia which is a country far behind the technological curve of Mezentia. Seeing an opportunity to take revenge on his prior country, Ziani decides to share his engineering secrets. This is the overall plot in a nutshell, but we also get to see the perspective of the Mezentia nation through several other characters. This allows us to see the motivation of both countries.
The story takes place in a fictitious world, with unique fantasy based names but other than that there is no fantasy to be found whatsoever. Fans of magic, otherworldly creatures and heroes of epic proportions will be disappointed in this book. All things considered it really feels like historical fiction than fantasy, so keep that in mind if you’re considering giving this one a shot. The story centers on several main characters, but also has multiple sections reserved for obscure minor characters. This was refreshing because we have the key plot characters moving the plot along, but you get breaks in between to see what’s going on behind the scenes of the main storyline. World building isn’t one of Parkers strengths, its characterization that really sets Parker apart.
There is little action throughout the story, but when it comes it comes swift and brutal. The last 200 pages really have a nice flow and slowly we start to see things fall into place. Initially Ziani’s motivation seemed clear, but after several revelations it becomes unclear as to what side Ziani is on. Much like the machinery throughout the book, we see gears fall into place and once the machine begins to run then we see how everything falls perfectly into place. The whole novel works its way up to a crescendo and once the final pages turn it left me hooked and eager to know what happens next.
Although I personally enjoyed the book, I know for a fact that a lot of people would hate it! There is no doubt in my mind that a lot of traditional fantasy fans will find this book tedious and extremely slow, but if you hold on and stick it out, the reward is great. Derealization seems to be a constant theme throughout the novel, many characters seem to step out of their body and observe the situation through an analytical point of view. This results in many characters feeling stiff and almost inhuman.
All in all I can’t say that this was my favorite book by Parker, but considering this was book 1 of a trilogy I can say that I’m defiantly intrigued enough to keep going. Fans of medieval weaponry and political intrigue will find a lot to appreciate, but fans looking for an action packed story will be disappointed.