The Fencer Trilogy by K.J. Parker

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The Fencer Trilogy Book 1: Colours in the Steel

Triple-walled Perimadeia is one of the richest city-states in the world, famed for its teeming markets and its impregnable defences. After decades of trying fruitlessly to take the city, one of the plains tribes comes up with an ingenious idea: send one of their own to get a job in the city arsenal and learn its secrets from the inside.

Even as an ambitious young chieftain's son plans the most audacious siege in history, life in the city goes on. Bardas Loredan, a former soldier, now works as a defence advocate. In the courts of Perimadeia cases are settled through swordplay and Bardas is very good at what he does...until a vengeful young woman hires the city's Patriarch to curse him.

Colours in the Steel was originally published in 1998 and was the debut novel by the enigmatic K.J. Parker. It's also the first in The Fencer Trilogy, although it also works quite well as a stand-alone book. It can be best described as a sort-of anti-epic fantasy. The trappings of much of the subgenre are present: swordfights, large armies, sieges, military manoeuvres, magic (more or less) and prophecies (kind of). However, most of this is window-dressing, with the focus being on Bardas Loredan and his troubled family life, and on young Temrai, the chieftain's son and spy who ends up plotting the genocide of a city he actually quite likes.

As with Parker's later books, Colours in the Steel has a cynical vein of black humour running through it. There are musings on the futility of revenge, the pointlessness of warfare and the quite insane meanderings of the military bureaucracy (there's more than a whiff of WWI incompetence to the leaders of Perimadeia and their military judgement during the siege). There's no glorification of warfare, with both sides suffering heavy losses and wondering if it's all worth it. However, there is also a distinct love of military hardware. In fact, Parker devotes pages to how swords are forged, how siege engines work and are built and on the best ways of defending a city under siege from a superior enemy. Colours in the Steel belies the tendency of much of epic fantasy to be pure escapism, instead educating the reader on matters mechanical and mathematical more effectively than most science fiction novels. Sometimes the deviations onto the best way to make a trebuchet work go on for a bit too long, but Parker's writing skill is enough to keep even the most detailed descriptions of gears and counterweights interesting.

Long-term readers of Parker will know that she(?) has little truck with gratuitous worldbuilding. There is no map and the legal system of Perimadeia seems to have been created more for dramatic effect than any desire to create something that would work on a practical level. There is no 'magic system' either, with the city's Patriarch cheerfully acknowledging that he has no idea about how magic (the Principal, which actually seems more like some kind of limited prophetic or telepathic ability) works. What does work quite well is the subplot where the Patriarch and his best friend try to lift the curse the Patriach put on Bardas (without understanding what was going on), only to find other forces getting involved. Parker doesn't spell out what's going on with this 'magical' plot and it's left to the reader to piece together what it all means, which shows respect for the reader's intelligence.

The book's biggest success is in its characterisation, although it has to be said that Bardas himself is painted a little too straightforwardly. Those who are familiar with the whole trilogy (particularly his actions in the second novel, The Belly of the Bow) will be aware that there are good reasons for this, but newcomers may find Bardas a little too obvious as a protagonist. However, the rest of the cast are painted well, particularly Patriarch Alexius and his friend Gannadius who spend a lot of the book as outside observers and commentators on what's going on before having to get involved. Bardas's brother, Gorgas, is also a fascinating and contradicted character. Whilst definitely being a nasty piece of work, he also has his own sense of honour and fair play. He doesn't play much of a role in this novel, but is set up well for the sequel.

Colours in the Steel (****½) is a striking debut novel. It has the requisite amounts of well-depicted carnage and military activity for an epic fantasy, but it's focus is much more on the characters, their motivations and the realisations they lead to. The book is also darkly funny. It's an excellent example of an epic fantasy novel that uses the tropes and limitations of the genre to say something a bit more interesting than normal. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
 
Just to say am enjoying Colours in the Steel so far, thank goodness, after a poor run of reads. So far, doesn't read out of place beside Abercrombie or Scott Lynch, which is good. Only a few small criticisms so far, but good characterisation and intelligent ideas.
 
The Fencer Trilogy Book 2: The Belly of the Bow

Shastel is a country owned and run by an academic foundation, whose bank holds the debts of its impoverished citizens in perpetuity. Spying an opportunity for profit, the Loredan Bank has taken over the nearby island of Scona and is undercutting the Foundation's economy, sparking a trade war that is in danger of turning very real and very bloody. For Bardas Loredan, living in seclusion as a bowyer in Scona's backwater, the last thing he wants is anything to do with the schemes of his ruthless brother and pragmatic sister. But he is soon drawn into the conflict, even as he comes to realise that his attempts to live a good life may be nothing more than a sham.

The Belly of the Bow is the second volume of K.J. Parker's Fencer Trilogy. At first glance, this is a slighter novel than Colours in the Steel. Whilst Colours centred around a massive siege and the attempts to defend a city, The Belly of the Bow is a much more personal story focused on the dysfunctional Loredan family. The war this time is more in the background, and played for maximum cynical impact. Parker's black humour and refusal to glorify the horrors of war combine to provide a damning indictment of violent conflict and the reasons for it.

As a personal, more character-focused story the novel takes a while to get going. The complex relationships between Bardas, his sister, brother and niece are built up steadily but the thematic point of the novel is elusive until a shocking late-novel development throws everything into sharp relief. The book is essentially a character study of Bardas Loredan, who believes himself to be the 'good' member of the family, a hard worker who sends money home to his younger two brothers on their farm and has always tried to do the right thing. As the novel demonstrates, Bardas is kidding himself (his previous careers as soldier and lawyer-at-arms being steeped in blood and mayhem) and his self-belief is a rather brittle thing. When faced with a revelation of a betrayal on an massive scale, his reaction isn't reasoned or understanding, but a cruel and merciless lashing out that is genuinely unexpected.

The novel pivots on this moment (which happens very late in the book) and doesn't fully work until you realise that moment - a moment of gut-wrenching horror that even George R.R. Martin might consider excessive - is coming. As such, the book works a bit better on re-reads. However, as well as Bardas the novel concentrates a lot on his brother, Gorgas. Gorgas is best described as an ex-sociopath who has genuinely reformed from being a violent lunatic and is now seeking to make amends for his past mistakes. Unfortunately, Gorgas is rather disturbingly single-minded in this attempt to seek redemption, and the crimes he commits to achieve it actually dwarf his original offence. The contrast between the two brothers (and Bardas's angry denials he is anything like his brother, which ring increasingly hollow as the trilogy unfolds) is a key point of the novel that Parker develops effectively.

As with much of Parker's work, the tone is often deceptively light-hearted whilst masking a cynical edge, the humour is jet black and the characterisation is strong, but takes a while to come to the fore. Also, as it standard, the novel is packed with information on the creation and use of a standard fantasy weapon of war, in this case the bow. These passages of mechanical engineering may appear skip-worthy, but Parker actually cleverly uses the bow as a metaphor for her(?) characters and the world they live in. Other characters from Colours in the Steel return and there is some more information on the Principal (less of a magic system than an ability to nudge future probabilities to get a more favourable outcome, but due to chaos theory this is wildly unpredictable), but the focus is firmly on the Loredan family and their issues.

The Belly of the Bow (****) is a less-obviously engaging novel than its forebear, but once the scope of Parker's ambition for the book becomes clear it turns into a much more impressive work. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
 
Interesting reviews, seeing a different viewpoint on two books I've already read. (Read them a few years ago.)

Colours in the Steel - I remember taking a while to get into it, but then being very drawn in. An important part of the book for me was the balance and contrast between the two main characters - the fencer and the tribal chieftan - and arising from that the balance and contrast between the two plot lines.

I was then disappointed by Belly of the Bow, as the tribal chieftan was not in that book, and the focus was all round the fencer, his brother and the ongoing grim family fight, with a side-dish of merchant banking. In contrast to Colours in the Steel I found the book off-balance for want of a better term, as there was no equivalent, contrasting character. The brother is too like, and too tied up with, the fencer.
Yes the horrific bit is horrific. Interested that you found the book better on re-reading knowing what was coming.

The books were very well researched and written, but in the end, not for me. (I was impressed that KJ Parker had actually been making the bows.)
 
Still reading Colours in the Steel, and while I appreciate the research, it does come across in a somewhat odd and off-balanced manner.

Firstly, nomadic plainsmen happen to know more about steel making than anyone else in the world. The trouble is, they appear to have little regard for sword making, other than as a hobby, which makes it hard to understand why they have become such masters at it. Even stranger, this great city, centre of civilisation, has never learned through trade and exchange of ideas how to improve their own weapon making up to this standard.

A second point is that Bardas cleans his wounds with bread mould, after a story about a group of wounded soldiers dressing their wounds in mouldy bread, and healing faster than anyone else - an obvious allusion to penicillin. However, I have a hard time believing that men dressing their wounds with mould are going to encounter only benevolent pathogens and not actually going to give themselves blood poisoning. Additionally, even if you stretch credulity for this story, how would Bardas know exactly which types of mould to use for healing?

Other than that, interesting reading so far, but the research pieces seem to jar as bolt-ons to the story, and not necessarily in an intelligent way.
 
Am still reading this, and am finding it a slog to get through.

The subject of fencing and weapons making is all very well done, but I have difficulty finding anything else around it that feels convincing.

Alexius is a wonderfully scripted character.

Temrai is awful.

For example, with Temrai - he goes to the city for a few months, and just by glancing at a trebuchet, knows exactly how to engineer one of any size, including where all the joins and bolts are placed, etc.

And his dialogue and personality are far more like an English civil servant, than the war leader of a barbarian Mongol-style tribe.

For example, when informed of the approach of an enemy army towards his people's massive camp:
"Well, I supposed I'd better see for myself," he said. "Jurrai, Mordenai, I need you for something. Could you get my horse and bow and meet me by the saw pits?"
Temrai just never feels convincing as a nomadic war lord, either by his astonishing engineering genuis, or his nerdy-teen personality.

Loredan is nicely done - but then again, his story revolves around fencing, which is detailed, seemingly to the absence of other important subjects, such as, oh, culture.
 
The Fencer Trilogy Book 3: The Proof House



Thanks to the efforts of Bardas Loredan - fencer turned bowyer turned sapper - the city of Ap' Escatoy has fallen, allowing the Empire to begin its expansion into the lands held by the plains tribes. Loredan is reassigned to an imperial proof house, testing armour to destruction, until his previous relationship with the leader of the tribes is discovered. Loredan is the only person that Termai, sacker of Perimadeia, fears and the Empire plans to make good use of that fact in its invasion.



The Proof House is the third and concluding volume of K.J. Parker's debut work, The Fencer Trilogy. As with its two predecessors, Colours in the Steel and The Belly of the Bow, it's a novel that wears the clothes of epic fantasy but seems resolutely unimpressed by them. Wars, battles, sword fights, clashes of armies and so forth are all featured, but presented with dripping cynicism and sarcasm by the author, who is far more interested in her(?) characters. The Fencer Trilogy is less about the trappings of the subgenre and more about family relationships, particularly the extremely dysfunctional (to the point of murder) Loredan clan. The novel is driven, as to some extent the previous ones were, by Gorgas Loredan's insistence on repairing the damage he did to his family as a youth, utterly unaware that his crimes are past forgiveness or forgetting.

Elsewhere, Parker continues to base her narrative around the trappings of medieval-style warfare. The first book revolved around swords and the second around bows, with both standing as metaphors for the novels' themes. This continues in the third novel, which is about armour and how it is tested to be 'proof' against the pressures that will be brought to bear against it. This thematic element is a bit overstated in this third volume, with what was previously a subtle and clever analogy instead being rammed down the reader's throats with less nuance. This is a shame as other elements are handled in a far more enjoyable manner, such as the final conclusions about the Principal (including some interesting information about its temporal-manipulation effects) and the resolution of Temrai's storyline from the first novel.



The novel's biggest weakness is the fact that a major new political power - the Empire - appears literally out of nowhere and is described as the largest and most powerful nation in the world with an army numbering in the millions (individual provinces can field armies in the hundreds of thousands by themselves), with its nearest borders being only a few hundred miles from Perimadeia, Shastel and other familiar locations. Yet it somehow went completely unmentioned in the first two novels of the series, stretching credulity past breaking point. This is a shame as the Empire is a reasonably well-constructed fantasy nation (as these things go) and the increasingly bemused meta-observations by one of its provincial officers on the plot is quite amusing.

The Proof House (***½) is a clever novel that uses the trappings of epic fantasy to criticise the subgenre intelligently, whilst also featuring some dark humour, nuanced characterisation and an appropriately messy ending. Some shaky worldbuilding and over-egged thematic elements leave it as the weakest of the three novels in The Fencer Trilogy, but still a worthwhile conclusion to the story. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
 

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