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Book Review: The Folding Knife by K. J. Parker

The Folding KnifeGenre: Historical Fantasy, Court Fantasy, High Fantasy
Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Orbit; 1 edition
Publication Date: February 22, 2010
ISBN-10: 031603844X
ISBN-13: 978-0316038447
Author Website: K. J. Parker

In The Folding Knife, pseudonymous author K. J. Parker’s newest novel, a Machiavellian politician finds that even the most blessed of lives can be overturned by one bad decision.

The story follows Bassianus Severus, Basso for short, as he grows in knowledge and power, eventually becoming the first citizen of the Vesani Republic. The Republic is a city-state modeled on Republican Rome before it dreamed of Empire. The names of characters, Latin in origin, only serve to reinforce this sense of time and place. In the Vesani Republic, there is a primary leader known as the First Citizen. It is to this role that Basso aspires, and the reader follows him through the story, as he first learns his father’s business as a banker, then takes over the bank, then uses his wealth to get himself elected. The majority of the story is given over to Basso’s term in office, and his successes and mistakes-turned-successes, until that one egregious mistake that brings it all tumbling down.

The tale is interesting for the fact that the reader knows, from the very beginning, that things will not end well for Basso, or at least so the author indicates. Yet for some reason, this reviewer still entered the story with a cheery optimism, sure that whatever brings about Basso’s downfall couldn’t be all that bad and that Basso would bounce back in the end. This optimism only becomes more necessary as the reader continues, becoming more and more involved in Basso’s tale, and seeing him get more and more tangled in a web of his own making. Yet the end, when it comes, is surprising in its details and in those it involves.

This is a narrative of courtly intrigue, and while there are times of action and heightened suspense, it is the machinations of Basso, his cronies, and his enemies that drive the plot of the novel. From Basso’s stupendous wealth to his seeming imperviousness in the world of politics, it is by doing the unexpected and making reversals work to his advantage that Parker moves the Basso’s story along. It is mesmerizing to read, and the only time the story slows down is when Parker leaves Basso and focuses on supporting characters. While these characters are interesting – his nephew who shares his name, the general who deafened Basso in one ear when he was young – and needed to recount events happening outside of the Vesani Republic, where Basso has no perspective, they lack the color and excitement of the events swirling around Basso himself.

Following Basso through in lots of plot twists and character curveballs, unexpected events and odd turns of fortune, is an emotional roller coaster. The reader sits on pins and needles throughout the whole book wondering just when that moment will come that Basso makes that egregious mistake, and wondering what the fallout will be.

Parker also uses the tale of Basso’s rise and fall to philosophize about the nature of war in correspondence between Basso and his nephew, to look at immigration in setting that is historical but has parallels to our own, and to practically apply economic theory in a setting which the reader can equate to their own. But that at the same time Parker is careful not to draw conclusions, only to present examples. In a way, the story could be a fictionalized Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, with parts borrowed from Machiavelli’s The Prince and with a dose of Sun Tzu and Tacitus thrown in for good measure.

The Folding Knife is highly intelligent fantasy. It reads like a historical novel (the fantasy of the story only really comes into play in its secondary world setting) such as Michael Shaara might write. If you enjoy historical fiction, courtly intrigue, intelligent prose, and complicated plotting, The Folding Knife is a must have for your bookshelf.