Monday, August 12, 2013

Book review: "Colours in the Steel" by K. J. Parker

This is the first book I have read by K. J. Parker, and my reaction is: why haven't I found about him before? I can't say I was familiar with him prior to this book, but I noticed this name here and there, mostly good references and comparisons.

"Colours in the Steel" is the first book in "The Fencer Trilogy" by K. J. Parker. The story introduces as to the wondrous City of Perimadeia, a commercial and technological center of the world. Except these two things, another thing differentiates this city from the others: its unique legal systems, based on fencers (advocates) who duel to death to resolve the cases. Bardas Loredan is an advocate with quite a few years in the profession (over 10, which is very long for this kind of job), but not especially successful or known for it. A routine case of commercial law and fight with a newcomer will lead to unexpected turn of events: a deadly curse from newcomer's cousin, friendship with highest leader of magicians, and responsibility for defense of so-far-undefeated City against savage (at least until now) barbarian hordes led by young new chief Temrai...

First, I knew I was going to like Parker after reading first few pages. The writing was superb, full of light humor throughout all narration, subtle instead of forceful. I like this very much in books. It is a great fun to read "Colours in the Steel", even though the theme of it is not - imagine style of Erikson's short stories about Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, expanded to a real, serious book. As I said, there is nothing evidently extraordinary, but writing is actually superb and makes you expect more and more of this book. Another thing that reminded me on Erikson is how Parker uses the same trick of introducing a totally unimportant character, focusing on in for few pages and then discarding it. The book is not grimdark, but it isn't exactly shy of grittiness.

Setting is unique. I understand that all Parker's books are set in this same setting, only different parts of it. This book focuses exclusively on City of Perimadeia, with only few mentions of neighboring countries. But you get the feel that setting is competently imagined and consistent. It is based on classical medieval setting, but a lot of focus is put on commerce, technology and society. Actually, Parker even sometimes gets too technical with descriptions of technology. It's not boring, and you can see that he understands what he is talking about, but it can be tedious to read through. Setting is also humorous - like the Holy Pirates, and so on. I will enjoy discovering other part of the setting in next books.

There is no widespread use of magic in the setting, even though already-mentioned Order and its Patriarch Alexius play a great role. Instead of magic, you have (at least for now, we'll see in next books) only the Principle, which encompasses the nature and everything, and sometimes can be used to work wonders... Like the curse over Bardas.

Plot is good, but it is secondary to this book. It is used mostly as a mean to introduce the setting and the characters. And the characters are simply great. Bardas Loredan is perfect anti-hero: not young any more, prone to wine, lazy, not really honorable, cynic. It is really a pleasure to read about him and see the world through his eyes. Other POV characters, Alexius, Temrai, others... are all also great. Especially Temrai, who constantly wonders about his choices - which are sometimes morally questionable, so it is good that he wonders. The plot is pretty simple and predictable, but this didn't damage my joy in reading this book. If you are expecting a happy end and laugh after it, don't - this is not that kind of book. I appreciate how sometimes we skip weeks or months and characters have their own life in the meantime. Also, even though the book finishes the started plot, there is lot to discover behind it - and I wonder where this will take us to.

As I said, I am somewhat disappointed in myself for not discovering Parker before. But if sequels of "Colours in the Steel" prove as half as good as this one, it means that I have a dozen good books to read in future. I recommend this book to all fans of darker and anti-heroic fantasy.

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