Monday, 3 March 2014

A tragicomic romp through a vivid world in the sublime Sharps

From The Week of February 24, 2014

For all but a powerful few, we are pawns in another's game, our lives subject to forces we'll never comprehend. The potent influences of politicians and CEOs, diplomats and warlords, may not seep to the surface of our daily existences, but they are there, nudging us in directions of another's choosing. Part of this shaping is indirect, the ripple effects created by the wakes of society's prime movers, but a significant component is conscious, the tangible result of men and women who believe they are in the right and who are not afraid of acting on that belief. But what if those beliefs are wrong? What if those plans are too cruel to be tolerated? When do we, as the pawns in their games, decide to take ourselves from the board and make our own choices? K. J. Parker poses these very questions in her fascinating, political adventure. The dark energy generated from their answers is enough to make this one of 2012's finest reads.

In a world of merchant banks and triumphant generals, of powerful priests and corrupted nobles, Permia and the Republic of Scheria endure an uneasy peace. The two countries have little in common. Their skills, their gods, even their politics are completely different, leaving little room for common ground. No surprise, then, that the two bickering nations have recently concluded a decades-long war that destroyed the economies of both countries and was only ended thanks to the brilliance, and the brutality, of Scheria's legendary general, Herec Carnufex, infamously known as the Irrigator. However much they may hate one another, though, they do share a love of fencing, a sport which is of fanatical importance in both lands and can perhaps serve as a bridge by which to heal old wounds.

That appears to be the idea behind a mutually agreed-upon tour in which Scheria's finest fencers will be escorted through passionate Permia and set against its greatest swordsmen, in an ostensibly symbolic display of skill and glory. But when Scheria's prime movers select a band of misfits to represent them, more than a few eyebrows are raised in influential circles. A woman? An accidental murderer? A veteran of the Permian war haunted by his service? The Irrigator's second son who seems far more interested in books than blades? This is hardly a team to be feared. So why have they been sent into an unfamiliar land, with foreign customs and unstable politics? Why do they all get the sense that they are taking part in a game none of them understand? As Permia erupts in revolt, they will have to find answers quickly or else full-on war may resume. And this time, there may not be anything left to salvage when the guns have ceased their firing.

Delightful and dour, Sharps is a sublime work of fantasy fiction from an author whose relative obscurity is entirely undeserved. Ms. Bishop does a masterful job of layering her plots with interconnected schemes that slowly, tragicomically unwind through the narrative, ensnaring her characters in webs of lies and powerplays that rarely end well. This sophistication, in both its understanding of the selfishness of human nature and of the corrosiveness of politics, provides the fertile ground from which her complex characters grow.

This is hardly the first time that misfits have been asked to, in some sense, save the world, but rarely has it been done with such class and verve. It is an easy thing to assemble a cast of clowns and watch them bumble their way towards an inevitable conclusion. It is entirely another matter to animate a company of selfish smart-asses, secretive heroes and foolish businessmen, who not only attract the reader's interest and fondness, but who also succeed in elevating themselves from their darkly humorous circumstances to be rounded, plausible individuals, endowed with the tragic desire to do right, to fulfil their own kind of justice. A misstep of any significance on Ms. Bishop's part and Sharps would have slid into the ditch of farcical absurdity, a world in which the outcome loses all mass. That she has avoided as much here is a credit to her skill.

No review of Sharps specifically, and Ms. Bishop's work generally, would be complete without commenting on the mountains of research and experience from which these tales benefit. The author has a complex understanding of banking and trade that surely flows from an inquisitive mind open to the training and the knowledge of numerous disciplines. But these economic principles are mere icing on the cake that is her familiarity with fencing without which the novel would be a pale shadow. The author speaks fluently of not just the moves but the mentality of the fencer, of the fears and moments of explosive action that characterize it. This expertise deeply enriches the work.

Sharps' only flaw is that it is not the beginning of a series, a greater whole for the eager to devour. We must content ourselves with this unmystical gem that, for all its dirty politics, shines like the sun. (5/5 Stars)

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