Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review of Colours in the Steel


Colours in the Steel, K.J. Parker, fantasy novel, first published 1998, Orbit Books.

Imagine a world where legal disputes are settled by fencing duels. Lawyers are not lawyers but fencers for hire in civil cases. As in a medieval trial by combat, the victor of the fencing match is the winner of the legal case.

Disputes over improper accounting practices, late deliveries on purchased items, and tax evasion are all settled by two opponents hacking at each other with swords.

This is the premise of K. J. Parker's Colours in the Steel, book 1 of The Fencer Trilogy.

In a sense, its like reading a Kafka novel with an obvious sense of humor. Its nice, in a fantasy novel, to see that the usual cannon fodder, Orcs, have been replaced by a much more satisfying victim: lawyers. If that isn't sufficient motivation to read this novel, then there are numerous selling points.

The characters are portrayed as peevish, narrow minded, petty, cynical and occassionally suffering from brief interludes of insight and empathy. What can be said of George R R Martin and Joe Abercrombie, that they write fantasy for grown ups, can also be said for K J Parker.

She writes about a world stripped of gods. Not because some divine lightning hurler defeated another immortal unstoppable fire thrower, but simply because of apathy. Life for Permiadeia, famed Triple City and center of a mercantile empire, grew comfortable then grew luxurious, and people stopped needing to pray.

Perimadea is one of the blandest cities in fantastic fiction. Not because of the author's lack of skill. Quite the contrary, the city is purposefully portrayed as strictly an ecomnically driven, whith merchants who wear the offices of government but really never shed their purses or the interest in expanding their purses.

Permiadeia grew successful, prosperous, and then nothing changed for a thousand years. No gods grew pissed off because of a lack of devotion. The people made money. The city grew in fame and fortune. No one cared.

Enter the barbarians. A peace loving migrant band of plains peoples. A million strong but still, they have no interest in settling down and hate the idea of living within walls.

The author skillfully navigates this cliché. The barbarians do not eye the fantastic wealth, or the glories of its architecture. For the most part they couldn't have cared. Except of course they were provoked.

One of the cities more famous generals Maxen, leader of Maxen's Pitchfork, waged a relentless war on the plains peoples. Why? Well, because they were there, the author seems to be saying. The city needed an enemy. Maxen needed a way to become famous.

The barbarians don’t invade because the gods abandon protecting Perimadea. The barbarians invade because they were just smarter at exploiting the cities weakness and made technological advances in their own methods of warfare.

All of which sounds like the beginning of an existential historical novel. But there is a wrench thrown into this world and that is that magic works. The cool part is that no one really understands it. Generations of scholars and devouts have worked on exploring magic, the guiding principles behind it, how to use it, etc. And schools of philosophy have battled for years over the precise nature of the "principle." The principle "Cannot heal the sick, turn your enemies into frogs, or perform miracles. It can be used for offense or defense. A sword or a shield. That is all." This comes from the Patriarch, the highest authority regarding the principle. His opening lecture to the students of the Academy is designed so that "he'd be rid of half these young fools before the term ended." A teacher who can't stand his students and wants to get rid of them. Again, very close to the real world on this one.

K.J. Parker writes fantasy novels that feel like they have imported people from the real world into them. But as in the real world, people can surprise you. Though the ending of the novel, and Peridamiea, felt inevitable, she manages to throw enough plot twists and revelations that it still somehow managed to avoid feeling predictable.