Somebody spilled Shakespeare in my fantasy
Sharps is the story of a group of accomplished fencers sent on a goodwill-building tour of a foreign country. Parker doesn’t write traditional fantasy novels so much as they* write historical fiction set in fictional countries. They are a great author for fans of classical tragedy, and a good entry point for people who “don’t read fantasy”.
Brief plot summary
Five fencers of disparate backgrounds are more or less forced into representing their country in a series of friendly exhibition matches with the neighboring nation of Permia. Relations between the two countries are uneasy to the extreme as they have just formed a truce after four decades of war.
All is not as it seems, as powers in both countries seek to use the matches for their own ends. The situation is further complicated when Permians start dying and it becomes clear that at least one if not all of the fencers are pursuing goals at odds with the group’s stated purpose of building friendship between the two nations.
So how is it?
It’s certainly not light, but neither is it excessively gritty. It’s a story that seems simple on its face but grows increasingly complex. Every character is serving their own agenda, none of them are exactly happy to be involved in this trip, and it’s not even clear whether they are supposed to be building bridges, inciting a revolution, or providing an excuse to go back to war.
Parker keeps the reader guessing until the end. The intrigues are well thought out, and the book plays out like a combination murder mystery and political thriller. Every character has a possible motivation for the killings and the circumstances are mysterious enough that there are multiple plausible explanations. The plot moves along fairly swiftly from location to location up until the final resolution.
Sharps is not, however, a happy book. Parker’s novels tend to the Shakespearean, in that they end with a bloodbath or an improbable number of weddings (or both). I won’t reveal how this one ends, but I will say that I have yet to read a book by this author where everyone ends up living happily ever after. That being said, I wouldn’t describe Sharps as a “dark” book. Bad things happen to the characters, but it’s never excessive. There are no pointless torture sequences, no genocidal massacres, no jaded rapists. The book isn’t happy, but that’s because it is so well grounded that it comes across as carefully researched historical fiction.
Parker’s interest is in cultural changes, especially those brought on by technology. That’s a lesser focus in this book, but the way Parker manages to load everyday actions with deep significance really shows their strengths as an author. No word, sentence, or scene is wasted. It all supports the story’s underlying themes. This reminds me to some extent of Stand on Zanzibar. While the two books are structurally and stylistically completely different, both novels are carefully crafted works of art that feel totally complete in themselves. Nothing needs to be added, nothing taken away. Sharps wasn’t my favorite book of all time, but the quality of the writing is downright amazing.
I recommend this book frequently but it turns out lots of the people I have recommended it to haven’t been able to read it because their local libraries don’t own it and they don’t enjoy doing the whole ILL thing. (Note to self: prepare a post on WorldShare ’cause it’s awesome and people really don’t take advantage of it often enough)
This is a great book for literature professors. Seriously. There’s a lot going on underneath the surface and the way the plot develops is so classical that if the language was more archaic it could easily be mistaken for a 17th century play.
Members of the SCA will probably find a lot to enjoy here as well. It’s a good recommendation for people who like fantasy with a Machiavellian bent. Historical fiction readers who don’t typically read fantasy novels should really try this out with an open mind. It’s about as far from Tolkein/Dungeons and Dragons style fantasy as it’s possible to get. If Game of thrones has too much magic in it for you, definitely give this book a shot.
One final note:
This article by K.J. Parker about the history of swords and swordsmanship should be mandatory reading for all fantasy authors. It’s also a great read for fans of military history and for anybody interested in the cultish love of swords that pervades geek culture.
*Parker is notoriously private, down to not revealing their gender. While that information is available, I’m going to respect the author’s wishes and use the singular “they” for this post.