When I signed up to received this ARC, I was a little worried. When it comes to new-to-me authors, I try really hard not to get more than one book by that person, no matter how many of their titles interest me. That way, if I don’t like the author’s style or whatever, then I won’t have wasted any money on any of their other books. I already had K.J. Parker’s Devices and Desires waiting in my pile o’books, and felt a little guilty for requesting this ARC. What would happen if I read the ARC and didn’t like Parker’s work or style? Then there’d be a book I’d PAID for sitting on my floor, and then there’d be me feeling obliged to read it, and that just wouldn’t be good.
Fortunately, Parker’s style is very, very solid, very authoritative, and very good. I won’t have any trouble picking up Devices and Desires, so fortunately, my little gamble paid off.
Something I’d like to mention: the ARC has the following printed on the cover: “K.J. Parker is the pseudonym of a successful writer who wanted to try something new. We hope you’ll agree that this novel is more than something new: it is something extraordinary.”
Well, I don’t find it extraordinary; in fact, it’s quite a risky novel for a number of reasons I’ll delve into behind a cut, but it’s a risk that works. As to who K.J. Parker is, no clue. Apparently, this is a closely guarded secret, and while my inclination is to assume that Parker is male due to the content and the writing voice, I might very well be wrong. Certainly, this book would read very differently if it was known a woman had written it. And women can have a very sneaky way of writing in what reads as a man’s voice.
But don’t think this is “Parker’s” debut. He/she/it has already published three separate fantasy trilogies. The Company just so happens to be a Parker’s first stand-alone. So let’s talk about it, and I’ll ask you to forgive me if I slip and refer to Parker as a “he.”
The premise: what happens to heroes after the great big war is over? The Company follows five veterans, five friends, who colonize an abandoned island looking for a better life than the ones they made for themselves after the war. It’s meant to be a utopia, but unexpected discoveries brew mistrust and hate among the colonists, and one of the veterans has a very deadly secret, and he’s not sharing.
When I was at the Odyssey Fantasy Writer’s Workshop in 2005, one of my classmates was very big on what he called “fake historical fantasy.” It was an odd phrase, one my classmate likened to Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, and it was meant to describe fantasy so well written, so realistic in its historical detail, that a reader would believe he/she is reading a historical account of something that really happened. What made the book fantasy was either the use of magic (and I’ll add my own definition, that the magic should follow the rules of “hard fantasy,” but that’s me personally) or take place in an alternate history or secondary world that simply doesn’t exist.
The Company fits that definition to a tee. In fact, the only thing qualifying it as a fantasy is the fact it’s set in a secondary world. Faralia, where our heroes hail from, and the island Sphoe, where they colonize. Everything else, the details of battle, of war, of the required daily tasks to get a colony up and running scream FICTION and HISTORICAL FICTION at that. There is no magical sense of wonder, no unexplainable creatures or magical lands, just cold, hard reality. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if regular fiction readers read this and had no clue it was fantasy. That’s how realistic it is. It’s also quite literary in scope and theme. And there’s no doubt it’s very much a war/post-war story.
This book is insanely difficult to review, and I’d best start with simply describing what Parker does in order to convey just what this book is about and why it’s so risky.
The chapters are long, and the pace is deliberate, slow. From what I understand, this is not unique to this particular Parker novel. Parker tells this story with a distinctive voice of authority, using a very slippery but mostly well-done omniscient POV in order to give us the full story from everyone’s POV. I say mostly because there’s so many men who are protagonists (and two names start with K–Kunessin and Kudei, which wasn’t that bad, and two start with A–Aidi and Alces, which were too similar to my mind’s eye) and it’s easy to get the pronouns confused. Hell, it’s easy to get the names confused, and that’s too bad. But that’s what happens, even if you’re taking your time and reading slowly.
Almost every chapter has a flashback interwoven in the current action. Usually, it’s a history of the war through the POV of the characters, and it usually starts the chapter before going back to current action. Sometimes, though, the history came at the end, or in the middle, and it wasn’t always the war, but how the war affected certain characters who weren’t in it. Of course, the flashbacks serve to frame the chapter, the current action, though I’ll admit often I didn’t bother to look for the more subtle parallels. I did notice, however, that it was almost always jarring after a chapter or scene break, because you never knew if what you were getting next was present action or flashback. Sometimes I’d be reading something thinking it was present action, only to realize it was flashback, and have to start over.
Fortunately, Parker’s writing style is such that I didn’t mind. And I think it’s the writing style that makes this novel work, because let’s be honest: I’m not interested in war heroes or veterans or the colonization of an island that was clearly stolen from the government by one of the characters. Nor am I interested in the little details involving ship-building or panning for gold. But it’s the voice of the writer, as well as the absolute COMPLETENESS of the world-building and characterization that kept me going and kept me fascinated. It just felt SO REAL. The characters weren’t sympathetic, but they were wonderfully human, flawed and all. That too kept me reading, because it raised and answered the question of who the men within the armies really were. None of this singular heroic bullshit either, though the A Company was unique in that they lasted a VERY LONG TIME considering their roles in the military, namely line-breakers. The war was gritty, often boring, and we learned a lot about the politics behind the military and government. Interesting stuff, even if it’s not my cup of tea.
But one flaw, though I know it’s intentional, was that we never learn anything about the enemy. Ever. No one ever calls the enemy by name or reflects on why they’re fighting this enemy. On one hand, that’s a symbol: the enemy is an object that must be destroyed; the enemy is a constant in both fantasy in general and in this book, whether there’s a war or not. On the other hand, more details would’ve been nice. The only thing we know about the enemy is that they speak a foreign language. That’s it. Maybe Parker feared providing too much detail about the enemy would lessen the impact on what’s important: the A Company and how, in the end, they destroy each other, or maybe Parker just wanted to drive home the symbol of the faceless enemy and what it really means to be in the military. I don’t know. But it was a deliberate choice, no doubt about that.
And as far as real-life parallels go, I had trouble placing them. In regards to places and names, I kept thinking of an alternate Greek or Roman or Arab landscape, but sometimes certain things were just too American for my eyes, like panning for gold. Not that America was the first to have gold, but if there’s one thing I remember from my history books, it was the gold rush. The whole sequence of gold panning reminded me way too much of my own history, and while it might very well be the way EVERYONE does it no matter what part of the world their from, it was slightly jarring. Certain turns of phrase rang a bit too modern too, like the very last line of the book (at least in the ARC), and somewhere there was a comment about clowns, which had me frowning a bit.
Buy the Paperback: this is a tough book to rate, but I had to pretend I didn’t get a free ARC but instead bought the book, which will be released in the US as a hardcover. It’s a good, solid book, well worth the read, but for my buck, if I’d had to buy it, I’d prefer a cheaper copy (in reality, I got it for free, so it doesn’t get much better than that). K.J. Parker has definitely earned a spot on my “pay attention!” list, and I look forward to Parker’s other books.
But this is not your traditional fantasy. Not by a long-shot. It’s a historical without being history. It’s a war story without a real war. And it’s fantasy without being fantasy. Truly, it’s a book that can be enjoyed across genres, provided said readers like historical, military, and uber-detailed fiction. Ultimately though, it’s a character story, and sometimes the character functioned better as a group than an individual, but it was the individual that undone the group.
It’s a good one, but a slow one, and at times, almost Shakespearean in its tragic scenes. The end is almost chilling, yet it fits. I never knew where this book was going, and every time I thought I’d figured something out, I was wrong. That was a nice thing. Definitely comfortable in Parker’s capable writing hands, though Parker’s work is not something I want to read if I’m in a really depressed or sad mood, as it might make me feel worse.
And because I liked this review so much, and I feel it might do better credit to the book than I do, read the one over at SFFWorld: here.
Probability Moon by Nancy Kress