Why you (yes, you!) should be reading K. J. Parker

Published this week, SHARPS (UK | US | ANZ) is the superb new fantasy from K. J. Parker in which a single fencing tournament could decide the fate of two warring kingdoms.

One of Parker’s most passionate fans is Jared Shurin, half of the team behind Pornokitsch and a judge/administrator for the Kitschies awards. Jared has given SHARPS a stellar review – “Sharps may be the book that fantasy fans are waiting for” – and has just conducted an in-depth interview with the enigmatic Parker.

When we asked Jared what it is about the books of K. J. Parker that he loves so much, and why you should be reading them, he was only too happy to tell us . . .

Jared: As a shamelessly vocal, frothing-at-the-mouth K. J. Parker fan, I may be exactly the wrong person to write a piece on “Reading K. J. Parker”. For me, it is a no-brainer. For fifteen years, Parker has been consistently writing some of the best books in fantasy. Clever, thoughtful, funny, dark, political – stories with empires and sieges and swords and gods and magic – everything I love about the genre.

However, taking a step back, I realise that not everyone’s been obsessively stalking Parker’s creative output. Sharps, as a stand-alone novel – and one of Parker’s best to date – is the perfect starting point for a new reader. But in aid of those who need a little more convincing, I’ve tried to break down the reasons I read Parker. On a long list, here are the top five:

1. Plain-spoken. Parker writes in a straight-forward, direct way. The prose is easy, which lets the reader concentrate on the story and not fuss about deciphering the text itself. There’s no mythic vocabulary, no chanting in italics, no poetry (whew) and not a whiff of Ancient Elvish. Parker proves that you can write about complex, big ideas in plain language. The books are deceptively simple and wonderfully quick to read.

2. Educational. This sounds like a joke, but Parker’s books will open your eyes to the fascinating world of button-making. Also: currency regulation, fletching arrows and, dare I say it, charcoal-burning. Each book has one or more central metaphor: a self-reflective device that’s used to structure the story. As the symbol that ties everything together, that charcoal becomes really important – and, thanks to Parker’s skill as a writer, surprisingly enjoyable.

Still, it isn’t all briquettes and buttons. If you’re nervous that lumber mills and drop hammers aren’t your thing, there’s plenty of excitement. Blue and Gold is about alchemy. Pattern brings in volcanoes (nothing boring there). The Escapement focuses on siege warfare. And Sharps? Sharps is about swords. Another reason that this book makes the ideal first Parker: what fantasy reader can resist a book about sword-fighting?

3. Proper badasses. I don’t want to give you the impression that Parker’s books are all bone-grinding and economic theory, because they aren’t. Some of fantasy’s hardest warriors lurk within these pages – Bardas Loredon, Suidas Deutzel and Poldarn among them. Deadly fighters from all walks of life: highly trained and extremely motivated. Parker’s books also contain some of the most compellingly vicious fight scenes. The sword-monks and raiders of the Scavenger trilogy, the mechanised warfare (and epic sieges) of the Engineer trilogy, the underground battles in The Proof House, and, of course, the swordplay of Sharps. From classic fencing to brawls, pitched battles to lethal duels, Sharps has a glut of action. As always, everything is exhaustively researched as well. (What else would you expect from an author that makes their own swords?)

4. Character driven. Nor do I want to give the impression that Parker is all bloodshed and battles – the real tension comes with the characters themselves, and the books’ most exciting conflicts are completely internal. The Engineer trilogy is about a man who uproots the entire world because he wants to go home – it is a love story, albeit on a sweeping scale. The Company is about the friendship between a group of exhausted veterans. The Folding Knife and The Hammer are both stories of families: the unmatched love and hate that links parents and children, brothers and sisters. And Sharps has a bit of everything: star-crossed lovers, a coming of age tale, broken families and wild ambition. A half-dozen compelling characters, each with their own story to follow.

Best of all, the characters are all smart. Too often, fantasy relies on naive heroes, railroaded through adventures via gullibility and ignorance. In Sharps, every character is clever and driven, and the fun comes when their interests inevitably collide. Having intelligent characters also means the book treats the reader like a grown-up. There’s no info-dumping or hand-holding, Parker gives the reader a lot of credit, and, from that starting point, goes on to deliver complex (and vastly entertaining) twists and turns.

5. Something’s happening here. Parker’s books have all been set in similar worlds, but with Sharps the pieces are starting to slide in place. A few choice references to other cultures, some familiar names… suddenly we’re starting to see, if not the big picture, at least the wall it hangs on. This is a sprawling world with huge empires, vast armies, conniving politicians, dramatic sieges, magic, gods and philosophy – and Sharps gives the clearest view of it to date. That makes this book the perfect place to start. And for dedicated K. J. Parker readers, this confirms our sneaking suspicions that everything’s linked together.

Given that you’re now probably champing at the bit to get started, there are a lot of ways to get stuck in. So, where to start?

Well, Sharps.

But if a team of fencers – on tour in an enemy country, combining diplomacy and personal ambition and reckless romance and battles with vicious foes – if that somehow doesn’t appeal, there are few other good entry points as well. The Folding Knife is another recent stand-alone. Like I, Claudius, The Folding Knife features imperial politics and vicious family in-fighting (plus some laugh out loud humour and some quality scheming). There are also several short stories out there, all of which provide a great introduction to Parker’s style.

Normally, this is the sort of sign-off where I’d talk about how jealous I am of new Parker readers: you get to read all these for the first time, after all. But a sixth reason to love Parker… and perhaps the most important one of all… the books get better and better every time through.