Mightier than the Sword (2017) by K.J. Parker

“Speaking as a military man, I despise fighting against lunatics. I’ve done it once or twice, and it sets your teeth on edge. You can’t predict what they’ll do, …” (Loc 570)

 

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Cover by Vincent Chong

When the Empress is your aunt, you’ve got to do what she says, even if you don’t like it. K.J. Parker’s latest novella pits an unnamed narrator against “the Land and Sea Raiders”, a group of mysterious pirates who have been attacking the land’s monasteries. We are told a brief history of encounters with the raiders, but until now, no-one has been able to discover exactly who they are or where they’re from.

“Our first experience of them was seventy long, high-castled warships suddenly appearing off Vica Bay. The governor […] sent a message to their leader inviting him to lunch. He came, and brought some friends; it was sixty years before Vica was rebuilt,” (Loc 129)

The narrator, who is an “Imperial legate” (basically an ambassador or envoy), is dispatched to put a stop to the raids. He sets out on a journey to visit some of the monasteries which have yet to encounter the raiders. This brings him into contact with a lot of monks as well as something very dear to the characters in the story, books. The preservation of knowledge and the value of the written word are two of the major themes of this story. Parker offers some beautiful descriptions of said books, for example:

“The cover was the sort of rich dark brown leather they make the very finest boots from; split calf, if I’m not mistaken, […] It was embossed with a falconry scene; […] The title page was stunningly illuminated in gold, red, blue and green interlocking swirls and clusters, each colour bordered in black.” (Loc 272)

As hinted at by its title, Mightier than the Sword is also a story about medieval-style warfare. Our narrator must oversee the battalion of soldiers tasked with finding and quelling the pirates. Despite his apparent lack of martial skills – and against the advice of his lieutenants – he rather reluctantly insists on leading from the front. The results are predictably amusing to read, and this novella is crammed with such darkly-humorous scenes.

I enjoyed the witty narrative voice and appreciated that the hero was portrayed with his faults on full display. He doesn’t have a name, yet he is so well written by Parker that I quickly became invested in him as the leading character of the tale. The supporting characters are well written, too, which is quite a feat considering the short length of this book. This is down to K.J. Parker’s skill as a writer to have penned such a readable tale in this short novella form.

As well as being intelligent and entertaining, this story is very, very funny. Upon doing a quick bit of research, I discovered that K.J. Parker is a pseudonym for the British author Tom Holt. I have never read any of Holt’s work, and this was my first exposure to K.J. Parker, but it won’t be my last. It was such a refreshing read for me. Being a novella, I flew through it and was disappointed when it was over.

[I received a review copy from Subterranean Press and NetGalley. This does not affect the contents of my review.]

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Vincent Chong’s draft for the cover

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