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The Folding Knife
K.J. Parker
Orbit paperback �8.99

review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

There comes a moment in any alternative history where the story has moved so far beyond the original point of divergence it no longer has any relevance. This is not to say that The Folding Knife is an alternative history per se but it nonetheless has the distinct flavour of a story that has become somehow detached from an historical starting point and is now looking for a place to settle.

The novel is set in the fictional Vesani Republic, but its characters possess Latin names and it would be difficult to do anything other than to read the settings and social structures as in some degree analogous to the Roman Republic and subsequent empire with which we are familiar. By the same token, it's impossible not to find similar if fuzzier analogies for neighbouring countries and cultures portrayed in the novel. How precisely events that take place in the novel relate to events in 'our' Roman history, I am not at all sure, but there were moments when everything seemed oddly 'familiar', as though I had somehow heard these stories before, in another context.

Parker is generally very sparing with description and scene-setting, instead seeming to rely on a scatter of broad hints and almost-references to do the work of filling in a suitable background and appearance. Quite how this works if one doesn't know much about the Roman Empire, I'm not entirely sure, and it also makes me wonder what else I may have missed along the way. However, it is certainly a very economical way of dealing with the world-building, something I suspect that Parker is not that engaged by.

What it is that does interest her is not easily established. The novel's opening and early chapters focus on the changing ownership of the titular knife. It moves in quick succession from a thief who is poisoned (whether accidentally or intentionally remains unclear) by the mistress of the house she is trying to rob to the poisoner herself and then, a few years later, to her son, Bassiano Arcadius Severus, who was born the day that knife arrived in the household, and who still later murders his wife and her lover, his brother-in-law, with the selfsame knife.

It might seem to be an unlucky thing to own, or an object of power, with a mind of its own. In fact, once the double murder has been committed, we rarely if ever see the knife again. That Basso will eventually lose it, we already know from the prologue, but there is no indication as to whether it is in any way tied to Basso's fortunes throughout the book. It may be that Parker is deliberately playing with the conventions of the fantasy novel by denying the knife any agency in Basso's rise to power, but I don't think this is true. Given the novel is otherwise so plainly constructed and written, I cannot quite how such a flight of fancy could be incorporated.

Indeed, once the reader has negotiated the first few couple of chapters, the novel settles into a form that might be best characterised as fictional biography. We follow Basso as he transforms himself from an adolescent who is cautious, clever and just a little bit bratty, but with no real idea of what he wants out of his life, into an adult who learns the ways of business, and in particular how to run his father's bank. Educated by his father's chief clerk, Antigonus, Basso comes to realise the power of finance and trade, and exploits it to the full in developing the Vesani Republic and indeed in becoming its First Citizen. Basso is both ruthless and possessed of a certain kind of luck but he is not hungry for power. Instead, he is intellectually hungry and it is clear that for him the interest lies in making everything work properly.

He is, as a result of his own endeavours, extremely wealthy but on that level it really doesn't seem to be about the money so much as the ways in which small actions at one point can have massive effects at another. One assumes we are supposed to see him as some sort of tyrant - certainly, the citizens of Vesani are not always that complimentary - but from the reader's point of view, murder notwithstanding, he is rather engaging, a little lonely, wrapped up in work, with a vanishingly small circle of friends.

The greatest difficulty with this novel is that while Basso is intellectually engaging, he rarely strays far from his office and apart from the odd assassination threat, swiftly terminated, his life is not particularly eventful. It is not that things aren't going on. His general, Aelius, fights wars for him, and we occasionally see the world from his viewpoint, while his nephew, Bassano, has an intricate series of adventures of his own, which he dutifully reports via letter. Most critically, Basso is embroiled in a feud with his own sister, Tranquillina, who refuses to forgive him for the murder of her husband, even though he was a notorious philanderer, but it is only Lina who is plotting.

While her demands become increasingly outrageous, Basso sighs gently at each new move and makes a few business transactions which will block her progress for a while longer. We are no more privy to what Lina is thinking than we are to the thoughts of Bassano or Aelius. Everything is mediated through Basso's steady view of the world, and fascinating as he is, after a while it becomes rather dull. Such a narrow focus also creates another other problem for the novel. There is really only one way it can end, and that is made clear from the outset. There isn't even really much choice as to how that ending will, as anyone who keeps an eye on the financial world will have already realised. And not surprisingly, that is precisely what happens.

I'm really not sure what to make of this novel. Is it an elaborate and very subtle joke, or is Parker attempting to create a new form of fantasy, using the mundane and economics? It's really not that easy to say. Basso is an unexpectedly attractive character, as are his small group of confidants. The novel's main pleasure emerges from their conversations and interactions but this can only sustain the novel for so long, and certainly not as long as the 500 pages it takes for the story to reach its conclusion.

The Folding Knife by K.J. Parker



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