PROS: Some of the characters are well developed and there is a good amount of intrigue.
CONS: The other characters are half-baked; the setting is underdeveloped; and the intrigue can be a bit overwrought.
BOTTOM LINE: If you are looking for a change of pace with your fantasy reading, this could be the book for you.
The war is over and the nations of Scheria and Permia are still attempting to recover from the enormous debt that conflict invariably brings. As a good will effort the nation of Scheria sends a team of fencers on a championship tour of Permia. Fencing is one of the rare similarities the two countries share and this could very well be just the thing to patch over old wounds. As the Scherian team soon finds out however, in Permia it is custom to fence with sharps rather than foils. God help them.
Sharps is the first book I have read by author K.J. Parker. Something about the name just appealed to me…I had been meaning to read Parker’s work before. In fact I own Devices and Desires, book one of The Engineer Trilogy. The thing is, I always assumed that Parker’s fiction was supposed to be dense and difficult to follow. Well, you know what happens when you assume. Sharps was anything but dense, in fact I found the writing style quite accessible, even when the story delved into politics or banking.
The real star of Sharps has to be the characters. The Scherian team of fencers is quite a diverse rabble, with the members all being bought or bullied into the potentially dangerous public relations mission. The best of these characters is Suidas Deutzel, who gets a fair amount of development over the course of the novel. Suidas is a veteran of the war and a champion fencer but financial woes have secured his position in the retinue. Suidas has some complexity, given that he almost certainly suffers from PTSD as a result of the war. Readers are bound to question his sanity but he remains entertaining throughout. Addo Carnufex, son of the legendary Scherian general that ended the war, is also well utilized. He is a natural leader (a trait inherited from his father) and a pacifist (a trait most definitely not inherited from his father). Addo is the glue that holds the ragtag team together and he is rather sympathetic. Giraut is probably the last of the characters with any real substance. Giraut starts out strongest of all, but eventually gets crowded out as Suidas and Addo take the focus. Still, Giraut displays many more dimensions than the rest of the cast.
Iseutz is the fourth team member. Her personality is almost entirely one dimensional. It seems as though the only emotion Iseutz is capable of exhibiting is outrage. This quickly becomes grating. Phrantzes the team coach is no less annoying, at least at first. Towards the end his role does expand some but by this point it is too little too late. The final member of the team, the public relations offices (read: spook) Tzimisces is barely worth commenting on. There are a number of ancillary characters but they are also barely worth commenting on.
The plot finds this team representing their nation against the fencers of Permia. The two countries are different, though the majority of the exposition is focused on Permia. This is where most of the story takes place (a large chunk of which is traveling). Permia is a country without its own standing military. Instead, the Permians hire mercenary forces such as the highly disciplined Imperial Blueskins and the Aram Chantat horse lords. The primary difference between the two cultures however, is the style in which they fence. The Scherians use foils in their matches. The Permians on the other hand use deadly sharps in competition. Also, though the Permians fence with rapiers and longswords they primarily stick to “messers” which are crude but lethal cutting blades. This suggests a lot about Permian culture but Parker fails to capitalize on this. The team spends a lot of time in Permia but really fails to explore any of the details. As I mentioned earlier, much of the story is spent traveling and the rest is spent in fencing guilds. What readers do learn of Permia is told rather than shown but this is still more than can be said of Scheria which comes across as indistinct.
Though a novel of fencing the sword play takes a back seat to politics and an assassination plot. That was fine by me, as the politicking of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series proves that agendas and maneuvering can be just as thrilling as a bloody battle. There is some social commentary to be found in Sharps, nothing overly preachy but it does present a topical element especially regarding the debt of nations and the futility of warfare. The assassination plot is presented as much more intricate than it actually is. At times all the scheming can get quite confusing (not to be confused with intriguing). My problem is that Parker makes things out to be much more than they are and the true assassin is not so difficult to identify. This is the one part of Parker’s writing that I did not find to be accessible. The fencing can be exciting when it comes around and there is a good amount of violence in Sharps. Though Parker’s attempts at subterfuge and espionage are a bit ham-fisted this author seems to has a good grasp on the art of competitive sword fighting.
Sharps is a decent enough novel. There are better fantasy books out there but this one does offer a unique change of pace and scenery. It’s nice to read fantasy where there isn’t a war on or a dark lord fulfilling some old prophecy. Parker’s writing is comprehensible and I do intend to finally read Devices and Desires.