Sharps by K J Parker
I think it’s time to plunge into a minor thicket of incomprehension and talk about irony for a moment or two. I have it on the best authority that Americans just don’t do irony. In terms of humour, the American audience is usually driven by the gag and dislikes situations in which the listeners are not sure whether the punchline has been delivered and they’re supposed to laugh. I suppose that’s why they clap at the beginning of a song. This avoids any embarrassment in not wanting to clap at the end when they find out how awful the song is. The rather specific cultural omission of an irony gene is customarily explained by an alleged seriousness buried in the American psyche. It seems Americans want uncomplicated communication, not situations in which they have to work out whether what’s being said is to be taken seriously. They therefore reject most irony as tiresome sarcasm, characterising the speakers as rude. So why start this review this way? Well, the general rule is if you don’t know what irony is, it doesn’t help to read definitions in a dictionary. But I hesitate to leave America in the dark. Given its publication in America, I therefore offer Sharps by K J Parker (Orbit, 2012) as a good example of irony for Americans to study.
The author specialises in writing a form of alternate history fantasy. Rather than write straight historical fiction, we’re presented with a different set of largely balkanised countries either caught up in national accumulations or Empires, or sufficiently distinct to have retained independence. It’s not uncommon for some of these kingdoms to fight economically disastrous wars, not because the people have anything personal against each other, but because their ruling elites disagree over policy. In this book, we focus on Scheria and Permia. The last war was ended somewhat abruptly when Scherian General Carnufex broke a siege in Permia by damning up nearby rivers and then releasing a flood which drowned thousands. This earned him the nickname of the Irrigator. The temporary peace deal identified a DMZ. By an oversight, this zone happens to be rich in valuable ores. If either side was free to mine, the sale of the resulting metals would rescue the winning country from bankruptcy. As it is, both governments have borrowed money and are unable to repay. As and when the governments default, the banks will collapse and both countries will lose their appearance of wealth. This does not suit the “rich”. Even though they are all mortgaged up to their eyeballs, they see salvation in the resumption of hostilities. To provide a casus belli, the powerbrokers agree that a team of top fencers shall be sent by Scheria to fight exhibition matches against Permian teams. In all the foreseen scenarios, war will be declared.
Of course no-one from Scheria would go if they knew they were being sent to their deaths. So a team of expendables has to be recruited. It’s led by Phrantzes, a man of military experience and an ex-fencer. He’s aided by the elusive Colonel Yvo Tzimisces who, when he’s actually around, functions as a kind of fixer. The actual team does contain a current national champion. He’s Suidas Deutzel who’s desperate for money. As a result of his experiences during the last war, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has a tendency to behave in a rather erratic way. Giraut Bryennius was interrupted while making love to a Senator’s daughter. The irate father burst in on them and was provoked into drawing his sword. More by luck than good technique, our naked hero killed the avenging Daddy in self-defence. Iseutz Bringas is a rather bad-tempered woman who refused the arranged marriage that would have given her family a status enhancement. The price of this refusal was membership of the team. Adulescentulus (who prefers the informal name, Addo) Carnufex is the son of the Irrigator — his presence gives the team political credibility. If this is a peace mission, the son of the hated General makes a good sacrificial lamb in the fights. The latter three may, at best, be described as amateurs, i.e. they have never fought in competition and have only ever used foils and blunted weapons. It therefore comes as a shock to them when they discover they will have to use “sharps”, i.e. real weapons that can maim and kill. Naturally, anyone on the Permian team who draws Addo will be out for blood.
So there we have it. Our team of heroes sets off for Permia and fencing glory except there are problems even before they manage to get out of Scheria. At first these problems are dismissed. Their suspicions smack too much of paranoia. And even among themselves, they refuse to believe the General would have sent his son to die. What Addo thinks is, of course, less clear. In every way, this is a beautifully constructed mystery as the author challenges us to work out what’s happening while propelling us forward with breakneck speed into a series of fights both on and off the formal piste. The politics and economics are also skillfully interwoven so we can piece together who would have a motive for each move and countermove. The character development is also a delight as either confidence is shaken or cowardice is confronted. I forgive it for being slightly on the long side. When you look back, it’s hard to see what could have been left out without damaging the end product. All things considered, this makes Sharps something of a triumph and, as a standalone, you have no excuse not to read it (missing out on it would, in itself, be an irony given my opening paragraph).
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.