Two of Swords is the new serialised novel by K.J. Parker. The first three parts are available now, and run to about eighty pages each. Further parts will be made available on a monthly basis. I’m going to try and put out a review for one of the currently available parts each week, and then review each new part in the month where it becomes available.
The second part of K.J. Parker’s Two of Swords starts where the first ended; however, it mixes things up a little bit by switching the viewpoint on the reader. We move from a focus on a farmboy-turned-archer to another member of his village militia – this one a tad more suspicious, a smidge more unreliable, and infinitely more unlikable. Where the first section was a journey novel, this chapter is more static – we’re shown a protagonist looking to survive and establish themselves in a society which doesn’t care much about them, and trying to survive by any means necessary.
The prose continues to be in Parker’s characteristic wry and dry style. It’s very densely written as well – there’s almost always a layer of subtext under the initial meaning. This applies to both the dialogue and the descriptions – the protagonist for this section is a bit more observant and quite a lot more cynical than the one from the initial chapter, and this is displayed in a more focused set of descriptions, and a finer reading of individual expressions and motivations. Parker manages to make the descriptions both vivid and believable – the picture painted is one of military squalor, mud, and uncaring institutions populated by incompetents. The physical descriptions are drawn through the prose, but the characters, equally well crafted, are largely seen through the eyes of the protagonist – their personalities seeping through the lens of his perception in dialogue and interpretations of their actions.
Speaking of dialogue, Parker’s has always been a joy to read, and there’s no change here. There’s a certain understated dark humour underlying all of the character interaction, and each piece of dialogue has clearly been thought about, and pitched appropriately for the character. Sometimes it’s a bit opaque, but this seems to be part of the narrative, cloaking a wider meaning in a feeling of obscurity, forcing the reader to piece together subtext and layers of meaning – it’s a surprisingly easy read, but gives up more to the reader if considered again.
The plot takes a different turn – as is probably to be expected with a different protagonist. The reader is shown a bit more of the previously mentioned ‘craftsmen’, which gives a bit more context to some of the mysteries from the first chapter. I wouldn’t say it’s fast-paced, exactly – there’s a lot of discussion, a lot of sidelong glances and more intrigue than in the previous instalment, and perhaps a little less widespread violence. But while I wasn’t flipping desperately through pages to find out what happened, this slower paced approach was just as effective, and just as effective – I may not have torn through the pages, but I couldn’t put it down once I’d started, being absorbed into the nuances and intrigues.
Overall then, this second segment in Two of Swords is at least on a par with the first. It has Parker’s trademark characterisation, and a sense of a wider world which is slowly spinning out of control, matched with some truly excellent dialogue and narrative at a personal level which is extremely compelling. If you’ve already read the first section, I’d urge you to give this one a shot. If you haven’t, you could read this as a standalone piece, but I’d recommend starting with the first chapter.