Sharps, by K.J. Parker
With a style of cover that’s slightly more mass-market than previous volumes, there is a suggestion that Sharps is an attempt to grow K.J. Parker’s audience – and no fantasy writer deserves that more in my opinion. Set in the same milieu as the Engineer Trilogy and the previous three standalone novels, Sharps is perhaps a more straightforward book than some of its predecessors, making it an ideal introduction to his / her work (no-one knows anything about K.J. Parker, other than his / her fascination with making things out of wood and metal, which is less central to this book than it has been to some others).
There is an uneasy peace between Scheria and Permia. Now, in an attempt to stabilise relations between the two countries, an official expedition from Scheria is taking a fencing team to tour Permia, fencing being the sport that fascinates and enthralls the populations of both countries. The trouble is that none of the fencing team wants to be there: the four fencers and their manager have been co-opted, blackmailed or shamed in to going, with the exception of one, Suidas Deutzel, a professional who is being paid a lot of money for his trouble. The problem is, his baggage as a veteran of the recently concluded war is at serious risk of overwhelming him – so he’s as much a misfit as his companions.
It’s an ill-fated journey from the off – the group are attacked by bandits, their military escort fails to materialise, their kit vanishes, the diplomat accompanying them keeps disappearing and once they get to Permia, they discover that instead of fighting with blunted foils, as is the custom in Scheria, they are expected to fight with proper sharps (hence the title); more worryingly, Permia appears to be sliding towards civil war and somehow the trouble seems to be following the fencing team around, with riots and chaos threatening to rip the country apart. And to cap it all, it seems that all Permians like to eat is rock hard bread and pickled cabbage!
Essentially Sharps is a thriller – when it becomes clear that the trouble following the team is not random, it must follow that one of their number has a hidden agenda. The question is who, what do they want and who back in Scheria is pulling the strings? As such, it’s more of an ensemble piece than many of Parker’s previous novels, which tend to concentrate on a single protagonist at the heart of the story. It contains less of the characters’ interior lives than other books, but this probably makes it more immediate, and as such a highly recommended place to start for any fantasy fan who has not discovered K.J. Parker yet. En garde.