Regular readers of this blog may already know that I’m a big fan of K.J. Parker. As such, I’ve been really looking forward to “Mightier ThanThe Sword”, his latest novella.
The world may be familiar to several readers – it shares a geography, if not a time period, with the currently ongoing “Two of Swords” serial, which has certain similarities to the East and Western Roman Empire(s). It’d a space where there are religious entities, which control knowledge – or at least the physical artifacts of knowledge. Books, the chains that attach them to shelves, and, seemingly, the education to go with them, all have a focus on monasteries. There’s an entire culture at work here, sketched in reader presumptions with a few high notes – so we see the protagonist speak with the Empress, and discuss the raiders coming out of the seas and targeting institutions of knowledge. It’s a small geography, but skilfully constructed, and the thematic notes are familiar if you’re aware of the wall of the Roman west.There’s a sense of decay at work here as well – or at least of entropy, as roads and institutions constructed in other times are no longer of the expected quality, slowly falling into the morass of mud amongst the deconstruction of the systems which support them. Parker has always been happy to show how governments are complex systems which allow people to survive – and equally happy to show how the disintegration of those forms is inevitable. Still, this is a space where, if the fringes of the central polity are decaying, the political core is still both active and heavily armed. This is a world that reeks of mud, deserts and religion, one where governmental authority is centralised across a distributed system, and one where there is a defined cultural border between those inside and, well, others.
Our protagonist is the nephew of the reigning emperor. As with quite a few Parker protagonists, he has a wry self-awareness that’s a joy to read. There’s shades of Wodehouse in his abject refusal to accept responsibility or intelligence as his own qualities, striving instead for a sort of aggressive mediocrity. Still, he’s clearly both privileged and intelligent, taking the reader along on a series of investigations into raids on monasteries; his thinking is lucid and easily explicable, and makes sense when you read it – that he refuses to think of this as anything more than standard is both a compliment for and an indictment of the society he exists within. Our protagonist is an impulsive charmer, with an intelligence which is diffuse, but keen if focused. As ever, with Parker’s protagonists, he feels about as smart of the reader, at least until he’s not. He’s also a man with a degree f laziness and, if not political conviction, a grasp of reality, enforced by his position – relative of an Emperor. I wouldn’t say his character moves toward clarity over the course of the tex, as much as it is revealed to the reader. But across it all, we have a narrator who is clever, charming, and makes logical sense in a world which, as discussed, is becoming increasingly illogical.
The plot – well, it’s part high politics, part blood-and-guts, and part personal drama. The battles are baffling, kinetic, and carry the sort of sense of risk and consequences one might expect. This is a world where everything is accepted as a business of sorts, and everything has a cost – be it in gold or blood. There’s some serious army action here, and if the blood spatter isn’t close at hand, the futility and random nature of conflict certainly is. The politics operates further beneath the surface, informing the stabbing and flights of arrows – but I requires a bit of thought to follow exactly what’s going on, and who is doing what to whom – and why The personal stories impact on both, particularly those of our protagonist, whose actions are rather likely to have geopolitical connotations. As ever though, the skill is in tying all of the threads together. Whilst I wasn’t entirely surprised by the close of the narrative, there were certain aspects I didn’t see coming.
If you’re already a fan of Parker’s, then this is an excellent addition to your collection – incisive, erudite and vicious. If you’re looking for something new, this is a great introduction to the tone and focus of his work. In either case, I’d argue that the style and tone are spot on, the plot compelling, and the narrator convincing. Pick this one up, and give it a read.