The Two of Swords: Volumes One, Two, and Three by K. J. Parker
Reading any of K.J. Parker’s books will reveal that he is deeply skeptical of human nature, very much including the feelings and ideals that usually get the best press. He passed his witheringly critical eye over romantic love in the ENGINEER trilogy, platonic friendship in The Company, and in THE TWO OF SWORDS series, idealistic devotion to a cause and rationalism get their turn in the ducking chair.
The story is set in the same world as the ENGINEER trilogy — I got the impression it was hundreds of years afterward — in “the Empire,” which has been divided for a generation by a civil war between East and West. The war has ground on for so long for several reasons. The intransigence of the claimants to the throne is one; the fact that the two greatest generals in the world (brothers who hate each other) have enlisted on opposite sides is another. The canny reader will soon begin to wonder if there are not other reasons for the conflict being prolonged for so long — and indeed there are. There are quite a number of actors who have their own agendas — the factions within East and West, the Empire’s neighboring countries, and “the smiths” — a fraternal/religious organization very roughly analogous to the Masons — who are engaged for a generations-spanning project of their own. Put it all together and you get the kind of political intrigue which makes you wonder just who’s driving this flying umbrella — or if the premise of an overarching design is false and it’s just a bunch of individuals busily stealing their neighbor’s Jenga blocks for their own construction projects and wondering why nothing ever gets built successfully.
The last possibility is all the more convincing because Parker’s work generally has a kind of realism you don’t often see in fantasy — it really is possible that there is no overarching design, just individuals bouncing off each other. This realism extends to other facets of the story, as well — famine and just plain getting lost are far more deadly and far harder to avoid in THE TWO OF SWORDS series than they are in the average fantasy novel, for example. He also has a knack for memorable characters, and in particular a peculiar gift for getting the reader to gradually sympathize with rather unsympathetic characters. (He often then reverses course and has the now-sympathetic character drop a chance remark that reveals that the unsympathetic characters are just as bad a person as you first thought them — or worse.) He also works the multiple-viewpoints angle (as seen in Game of Thrones and several other recent fantasy novels) to good effect, but ends up doing something rather subtle and interesting with it that I haven’t seen elsewhere. (Highlight here to see a mild spoiler: Only one character gets to be the point-of-view character more than once, although this is handled so deftly that I was into the third book before I realized this.)
Some of the beats that Parker hits here are familiar — perhaps slightly over-familiar — from his previous work, and I think THE TWO OF SWORDS is not quite up to the level of The Company, which I consider the best of his books that I’ve read. Parker’s work is pretty dark, and I would say I “admire” it more than I “enjoy” it, but if you’re a fellow-admirer, THE TWO OF SWORDS will not disappoint!
Here’s Stefan’s review from 2015, when TWO OF SWORDS was a series of 99c novellas in Kindle format. They are no longer available in these short individual installments, so we’ve disabled the links below. Instead, find the new versions (Kindle and paperback in three volumes) here.
The Two of Swords (Parts 1-5) by K.J. Parker
I’ve made it no secret over the years that I’m a big fan of K.J. Parker, purveyor of quirky and highly intelligent fantasy, formerly a mysterious entity whose real name or even gender was unknown but recently revealed (to my unending surprise) as comedic fantasy author Tom Holt. If you haven’t read Parker yet, stop here and go read Sharps now. You can thank me later.
K.J. Parker’s newest venture is a digital serial novel entitled THE TWO OF SWORDS. I don’t have exact word counts, and the installments vary somewhat in length anyway, but they feel like short-to-medium novellas — the kind of thing you can read in a few hours. At $0.99 per installment, they’re a great way to get a monthly dose of Parker without breaking the bank.
The setting for this series, as for most of Parker’s output to date, is a vaguely recognizable (but really different) parallel of Europe during and after the breakup of the Roman Empire: there are Western and Eastern Empires, one with vaguely Roman-sounding names and one with kinda-Greek-sounding names, as well as some other parallels to countries and regions in historical central Europe.
The difference with the works of someone like Guy Gavriel Kay is that Parker, as far as I can tell from my very fuzzy knowledge of that period, rarely if ever refers to actual historical events and mainly uses this setting as a nice, dynamic place to develop his wonderful plots and characters. By contrast, with Kay you can usually tell that character X is actually this or that king or poet or general with the serial numbers removed, and if you’re not careful you’ll run into plot spoilers when you look up the real life history depicted in the novels.)
Aside from the serial format, THE TWO OF SWORDS is standard K.J. Parker fare. If you’re a fan like I am, you’ll probably want to read this. That being said, despite having all the hallmarks of Parker’s fiction, for the most part it just hasn’t hit me with the same sense of delight as some of his earlier works. I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on the reason for this, but having read five of the installments so far, I believe the main culprit is exactly the serial format.
For one, Parker has switched to a new main character for each installment thus far, from relatively clueless villagers swept up in the ongoing war between the two Empires, to more knowledgeable military figures, to (in the fifth installment) the general of one of the armies, whose brother happens to lead the other empire’s army.
Switching main characters from chapter to chapter isn’t anything remarkable in itself. After a few installments, it becomes clear that Parker is using a tried and true technique by gradually widening the scope of the story. Teucer, the villager who gets swept up in the war, knows very little outside of his small world. Musen, the second villager who takes over the spotlight in book two, is marginally more aware of the larger picture. The setting gains detail, some intriguing mysteries are set up. In book three, we finally get Telamon, craftswoman /secret agent /spy /assassin.
And so it goes. With each installment, the scope widens and the story becomes more interesting. The whole project seems to follow a daisy-chain format: a character who makes a brief appearance in one book becomes the main character in the next one. It’s an interesting technique, and thanks to Parker’s typically sparkling prose and wonderful dialogues, it’s not an unenjoyable read at all.
However, I question the decision to start the story with the least informed characters leading the first two installments. In a novel, sure, I’ll keep reading since I have the entire thing in my hands. In a serial like this, if I’m not grabbed in the first installment, I might not keep reading. If I hadn’t been a fan of the author already, I probably wouldn’t have kept going past part one or part two at most. And sadly, it’s in book three that things finally pick up and get interesting.
A separate problem, also related to the serial format, is that the hopscotch narration doesn’t allow the reader to form any kind of lasting connection with the characters. The installments don’t have much of an overarching plot yet: there’s the larger picture of the war, sure, and the fierce rivalry between the generals/brothers, but aside from this, what we’re getting is mostly a set of vignettes: flashes of events (some momentous, some not) that portray “life during wartime” for people of varied status but lack the required amount of cohesion to really grab the reader.
It’s quite possible, likely even, that all these threads will eventually converge. I’m just not sure if enough readers will be happy to keep following the trail of crumbs Parker is leaving to lead us to that point. Some of the installments are great (especially the third and fourth ones), but the first two wouldn’t have kept me reading if not for Parker’s name and reputation. I wonder if it’d be a good idea, now that seven parts of the project are available, for Orbit to offer the first three for free, so as not to lose people during the slow opening volumes.
So, THE TWO OF SWORDS. I’ll keep going, because, you know, it’s K.J. Parker. There are definite sparks of promise, and at a dollar per volume, it’s hard to say no… but I’ve found myself thinking if it wouldn’t make more sense to just reread Sharps or The Folding Knife again instead. If you’re jumping in, make sure to read at least up to part three before deciding to continue or not.