‘War is an admission of failure.’
I recently reviewed K.J. Parker’s novella The Devil You Know and enjoyed it very much. This led me to try one of his novels, so I bought a copy of The Folding Knife after reading some positive reviews. I was also swayed by the fact that this is a standalone story.
Basso the Magnificent. Basso the Great. Basso the Wise. The First Citizen of the Vesani Republic is an extraordinary man.
He is ruthless, cunning, and above all, lucky. He brings wealth, power and prestige to his people. But with power comes unwanted attention, and Basso must defend his nation and himself from threats foreign and domestic. In a lifetime of crucial decisions, he’s only ever made one mistake.
One mistake, though, can be enough.
The Folding Knife is the story of the rise of Bassianus Severus Arcadius or “Basso” for short. He is the son of the First Citizen of the Republic of Vesani. His father gives him a position in banking, and Basso goes on to become surprisingly good at his job. We then follow his journey to wealth and power, but at what kind of cost?
I’ve struggled to write this review because it’s difficult to express what I enjoyed about this book. It took me a long time to finish it but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I can’t just say “it was a good story” and leave it there. Readers want to know what was good about it. It’s one of those stories that seems fairly simple and straightforward on its surface, but contains hidden depths that take time to sink in.
The Folding Knife reads like historical fiction more than historical fantasy. You could easily be reading about pre-Renaissance Venice instead of the imagined Republic of Vesani. It has often been remarked that there is “no magic” in Parker’s fantasy; there is a strong sense of realism instead. We get detailed descriptions of banking and government, how a nation’s economy is run, the strategy behind battles and warfare, even what maintaining an army of ten or twenty thousand soldiers actually entails.
From my description in the last paragraph this could come across as sounding dull and boring, but it isn’t. It is a very intelligent book, yet the prose is fairly simple. Parker does not get lost in flowery language, nor brutal, bloody descriptions of battles. The action–when it comes–is described without emotion.
There is a strong element of tragedy to the story. It’s also darkly humorous at times. Fans of the author will be aware of the level of wit and satire that goes into his writing. Could he also have been tapping into future events? Considering that this was written ten years ago, it feels chillingly current, almost prescient in the following quote:
‘The City prefect issued emergency notices: all markets, fairs, shops, inns and places of entertainment to close immediately; no unauthorised gatherings of more than five people; a curfew; compulsory notification of plague symptoms to ward and guild officers. The Guard commander posted troops to enforce the emergency regulations, keep order and prevent looting.’
Is this a recommend? For fans of the author, The Folding Knife is a definite recommend. But for the casual reader, I don’t think so. Not unless you are a fan of historical fiction mixed with satire and tragedy.
Thanks for reading!