20 November, 2009

Review: Colours in the Steel by K. J. Parker

From 1998 to 2009 ..... that is more than a decade and it is the timespan I needed to discover and read Colours in the Steel (1998) [US][UK], by K. J. Parker. It is the first book of the Fencer trilogy and the debut novel of K. J. Parker. There have been speculations whether the author is woman or a man. But to be honest I don't care. It is the content that counts. Since 1998 K.J.Parker published three trilogies, a novel and one novella. Next book will be out in February 2010.
For me Colours in the Steel is one of these books in the long row of underestimated books. I hope I can explain to you why this book is worth to read. And maybe it will make it to your Christmas wish list. With 503 pages it is not that short. But I promise you will read
"I've always wanted to go to Scona."
sooner than you expect. By the way that is the last sentence of the story. And what is the story about?

The Setup

Normally I write this section in my own words. But this time it is necessary to quote. The blurb on the back of the book is unagitated compared to other books. It does not give you a hint what to expect:
"Perimadeia is the famed Triple City and the mercantile capital of the known world. Behind its allegedly impregnable walls, everything is available—including information that will allow its enemies to plan one of the most devastating sieges of all time. The man called upon to defend Perimadeia is Bardas Loredan, a fencer-at-law, weary of his work and the world. For Loredan is one of the surviving members of Maxen’s Pitchfork, the legendary band of soldiers who waged war on the Plains tribes, rendering an attack on Perimadeia impossible. Until now ..." [Source: Back of the book]
A city, a veteran soldier and a siege in a secondary world. What kind of story would you expect on 503 pages which is part of a trilogy? Military fantasy? A story like the Trojan War or the battle of the Alamo? I can tell you, whatever you imagine it is beyond what you will get....

My Take in Brief

The story is told from a third point of view but the reader is not the omniscient observer. So far nothing unusual. But the way K. J. Parker narrates is peerlessly. You may know Google Earth - sorry that is no ad.
"Google Earth lets you fly anywhere on Earth to view satellite imagery, maps, terrain, 3D buildings, from galaxies in outer space to the canyons of the ocean. You can explore rich geographical content, save your toured places, and share with others." [Source]
And now replace Google Earth by Colours in the Steel. Yes, it will be difficult with a lack of imagination. But I'm sure that you, as a reader of fantasy, have a vivid imagination. The whole story is like a flight over Perimadeia and the Plain with a constantly zooming in and zooming out. And zooming in means until we reach the thoughts of a character. That includes detailed descriptions from the art of fencing over forging swords to constructing of siege engines. Not to forget the kind of subtle magic which is used. You think that sounds boring? Au contraire! I never read such detailed descriptions in such a splendid prose. When you read it you know you need it for the understanding of the story. Let me give you an example. Bardas Loredan wants to go out for a drink. Now you would expect that the story would continue in a way like "The Black Boar was not far away. And a mug of black beer would fit perfectly". Now read what K. J. Parker delivers:
"If a man wants to get thoroughly drunk in the lower city of Perimadeia, there are a number of places he can go, between them covering all the nuances of the mood, from boisterous jollity to utter self-loathing and all the fine gradations in between. From the fashionable inns where respectable people talked business over good wine to the unlicenced drinking-clubs behind a curtain in the back room of someone's house, there was an abundance of choice that was sometimes offputting. There were taverns that advertised their presence with enormous mosaic signs, and others which did their best to be invisible. There were taverns that were government offices, taverns that were theatres, taverns that were academies of music or pure mathematics; there were temples to forbidden gods, corn exchanges and future markets, dancing floors and mechanics' institutes, places that allowed women and places that provided them, places to go if you wanted to watch a fight, places to go if you wanted to start one. There were even taverns where you went to argue over which tavern you were going to go to. And there were places you could go and sit on your own until you were too drunk to move. In fact, there were a lot of those. [Source: Book page 70+71]
That is gorgeous for me. But there is so much more. The characters are not standard ones because they are not the expected vivid heroes. They have strengths and weaknesses and you get delivered all stuff which is important for the story. The story is a dark and don't underestimate revenge. Not to forget the cynism which comes along soft-footed and of course the black humor. K. J. Parker celebrates the interplay of human feelings, wishes, emotions and the interaction between the characters, the society and the surrounding. All in all it is such a clever mix for which you need some brain to fully enjoy it in depth. I really admire this peace of dark, intelligent, sophisticated and exceptional entertainment.

This is definitely a book for my 2009 top ten reads.

Bona Fide's Book Oracle

What is Bona Fide's Book Oracle? To keep it short. It is a palaver about the reviewed book held by ediFanoB and his alter ego Bona Fide. And I am the keeper of the minutes. Now read my minutes.

Bona: "I admit K. J. Parker for telling the truth." Edi: "What do you mean? I know you want to blame me again. brain." Bona: "No, no. But you can't deny the truth in following quote: Bad trouble on two legs is always best avoided! (p.70)." Edi: "Giggle. That doesn't heart me. I'm a brainer without legs. But I'm glad that I don't have siblings like Bardas Loredan. You scrubby monad doesn't count." Bona: "Shut up you dirty bastard! I'll kick you out if you are not able to speak about the book on a surpassing level." Edi: "Each man has a certain age that is appropriate to him; once he reaches it, he stays there, although his body continues to wear out (p.48)." Bona: "I can't believe it! You really read the book and you still can remember! You are a genious!" Edi: "...., which is more than you can say for you" Bona: "Come on, let's talk turkey! Did you find something worth to mention about this book?" Edi: "It was quite difficult to put down the book. This voice in the background was quite annoying. Yelling things like: Take out the garbage; dinner is ready; you are not alone; feed the cats. I liked this narrative style which I would compare with a google earth tour around the world with zooming in at point of interests." Bona: "The depiction of the fencer duels are like the choreography of a ballet. I'm glad we didn't try. I don't appreciate knots in the legs." Edi: "J. K. Parker is a master of literary temptation and Bardas Loredan is an intriguing character." Bona: "And the good thing is that there are two more books in the series!!" Edi: "Bona, what shall we do with the keeper of the minutes? It won't take long and he will punish us with the unavoidable questi: What shall I write?" Bona: "I know,I know, I know!!!" Edi: "What???" Bona:
"All the wonders of the world are at your fingertips; all you have to do is stay alive long enough." [Page 102]
Edi(grunting): "We drive him mad with our gibberish" Hey, keeper of the minute, if you want to stay healthy forget our sophisticated talk and tell the people that this book is an extraordinary read but not for every one. If you have a knack for well described details, gritty characters and a dark story, then read it. If you look for a handbook about successful siege of an invulnerable city, read it. If you want to know why it is advisable to be the only child, read it. If....." Bona:"Stop it! That isthe overkill for his brain! Remember the KISS principle." Edi: "What???" Bona:"Keep It Short and Simple!" Edi: "Understood. Here is my one sentence résumé:
Dark, intelligent, sophisticated and exceptional entertainment at its best."
Bona:"Hey keeper, now it is your turn. Hopefully you are sane enough to deliver our message."

More K. J. Parker

Unfortunately there are not many information available. Therefore I can't offer more links than I did at the beginning. But you don't want to scroll back and so I repeat the links: The author and the books.
In case my review could not convince you then you should read Abalieno's review which I like.

Origin of the copy

The copy of Colours in the Steel which I read and used for this review was birthday gift.


bloggeratf said...

Interesting. I haven't read anything by Parker, but the google earth analogy has me intrigued. Also, on your recommendation, I picked up Mr. Bledsoe's first two books, so as soon as I finish book 3 & 4 of Erikson, I will let you know how they went.

ediFanoB said...

He Alec,

Parker has a real own style. Maybe you read about the first stand alone novel THE COMPANY. I think you would like it. Read the reviews over at Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews, Graeme's Fantasy Book Reviews, Grasping for the Wind, Blood of the Muse, Strange Horizons, SSF World

Great to hear that you picked up the Eddie LaCrosse novels by Alex Bledsoe.

So far I read the first Malazan Empire book. But I won the 10th anniversary edition of The Gardens of the Moon. I decided to reread it. And I decided to read the whole series next year. I will read one book per month starting in January 2010. Ad that will include the books by Ian C. Esslemont.