The Folding Knife (2010) by K.J. Parker

‘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.

Publisher’s Synopsis

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.

My Thoughts

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!

14 thoughts on “The Folding Knife (2010) by K.J. Parker

  1. I’ve never understood the appeal of magicless “fantasy”. It certainly has its adherents, as shown by the genre keeps happening.

    Glad you enjoyed it and that Parker seems to be cemented in your “go to” author list now πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this book, although I didn’t much care for the other K.J. Parker book I read.

    I’m reading The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay right now. Kay does something similar, writing “quarter-turn” fantasy that is (almost) devoid of magic or anything supernatural. I must say I like The Lions of Al-Rassan a lot more than the first Kay I read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s good to hear. What was the other book? Apart from this one, I’ve read two of his novellas: The Devil You Know and Mightier Than The Sword.

      I haven’t read Kay before. I was recommended the first Fionavar Tapestry book.


  3. I’ve yet to read anything by Parker but I keep meaning to. I currently have a copy of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City and The Last Witness, so I’ll likely start there. I’m in the group who sometimes does enjoy magicless fantasy, or at least fantasy with almost no magic, though I read far less of that than the magic variety. Just exploring an author’s cultural, historical, geographical creations can be interesting, even if inspired by reality. I do wonder, though, from the authors perspective, when they write them is it because there is something they are drawn to in that sub-genre, or is it actually because they don’t enjoy researching history or being shackled to real history and instead just want to explore something that could’ve been real with no need to actually make it real, if that makes sense. I can imagine it could have a freeing feeling, but I’m also not a fantasy author. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m starting to get a feel for Parker’s style and I like it. It’s not what we imagine as traditional fantasy. He seems to enjoy creating fictional cities and countries that mirror our own from different times in the past. His world-building is good and he has a definite penchant for detailed descriptions of how weapons are made and used, how they are supplied to armed forces, how a government might govern, the workings of an economy, and so on.

      Parker also seems to enjoy writing flawed characters who ring pretty true, who feel authentic. Extended families behave as we would imagine, warts and all. He also has a taste for exploring the dangers of hubris, as well as the pain of tragedy among his characters.

      Saying all that, I’ve read reviews that complain his books can be boring. I guess it depends what you are looking for. Try one and see what you think.

      Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. You raised some excellent points and ideas!


  4. I’ve read only one Parker to date, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, but it seems like a very similar read in terms of style and overall tone – tragicomedy, one might call it :). I will definitely read more by him, he writes intelligent, entertaining, light-weight books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tragicomedy sounds like a great name for Parker’s writing. I’ve just started reading a short story by him called “I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There” and it is very funny so far. It’s available to read for free online in one of the issues of “Beneath Ceaseless Skies”–a great resource for short stories by genre authors.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Top Reads of 2020 | Who's Dreaming Who

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