Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book review: "The Belly of the Bow" by K. J. Parker

Yesterday when I finished with reading "The Belly of the Bow" by K. J. Parker, I was left very surprised, stunned almost... Let me tell you why.

When I've read "Colours in the Steel" two months ago on my vacation, I found the book very interesting: somewhat dark, eclectic, very well written, surprising in its lack of plot. Its sequel, "The Belly of the Bow", is similar in these points. Two years after the fall of Perimadeia, Baradas Loredan finds himself living on island of Scona, not by his choice, and earning his bread by making bows, a skill he learned as a kid on a farm. He shares island (among few thousand other people) with The Scona Bank, led by his sister Niessa and brother Gorgas, unwillingly. The Scona Bank is at war (their definition is more leaning to a commercial dispute) with neighboring island Shastel and its government, The Foundation, which is several times larger, richer and more populate - which doesn't means they have an advance in this kind of war. As conflict between these two organizations and islands grows, other familiar characters as ex-Patriarch Alexius, self-appointed Doctor Gannadius, Venart and Vetriz, etc., again come into play. And this time, it turns out that Principle (we'll not call it magic) has even more importance than before...

You will notice that in last paragraph I mentioned "the lack of plot". Even though the book itself has a plot - the war in large and small - there is no overall plot or theme to the series. Except in style and characters, and partially in setting, there is almost nothing (yeah, I know it sounds paradoxical) connecting these two books. This doesn't mean that it is a boring book. Parker paints a really detailed story, about war, society, magic... I need to say again, magic makes an important part here, and it becomes a bit more explicit (although not understandable). There is a great scene when the Clerk of Work (I think this was the right title) reveals all the knowledge he has.

Again, Parker's writing is interesting to read. Not for everybody, but I really like the abundance of technical descriptions and small details - you can see that he really got into this stuff he writes about. I admit though that sometimes he drags those descriptions too long. There is much down-to-earth common knowledge displayed as humor and contrasted to high and noble ideas - like the whole Foundation-Scona Bank situation. Also, there is lot of small daily-life scenes and common activities, and Parker usually succeeds in making them interesting or funny.

Even though "The Belly of the Bow" takes place in completely different location than "Colours in the Steel", you can't say that Parker was very generous with revealing the setting. Oh, you have a feeling he has a very defined and rich setting, but he is showing it only in minimal amounts. I've read know that all his books take place in the same setting, so I found this an interesting approach.

Contrary to last book, where it was evident who the main character is, this time situation is different. Oh, Baradas is nominally the main character, but this book is as much about Gorgas as is about him. And other characters get a lot of importance also, especially Alexius and Gannadius (although indirectly, I would say). And Parker really did a great work with Gorgas, who is at the same time a monster and an innocent. He goes into much detail with him, making him very reasonable and capable. I was impressed by his persistence and long-view approach to life, like with the sleep thing.

Unfortunately, there is a point that will sour this book for some people, and that is Baradas. His part is pretty bleak, full of self-pity, acting as a child, and being pretty much a spoil-fun. Things get pretty depressing around the middle of the book, when Scona and Foundation problem becomes larger, and when Baradas travels home (the last third gets more exciting, then). But the real shocker is at the end of the book - you will know when!!! I really didn't see that coming in the end and I am still not sure what to think about it. But this definitely candidates as a crossing of Moral Event Horizon! But in the end, I am really interested what will happen in the last book and how this trilogy will end...

So, even though "The Belly of the Bow" has similar style and quality as "Colours in the Steel", with great characters and depiction of society, it has one very dubious scene that will possibly ruin this book for some readers. Therefore, I cannot recommend it without reservations. Ultimately, my will depend on the last book in series, "The Proof House".

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