I wanted my first fantasy review novel to be a heavy hitter, so I went with K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife.
Now, I don’t usually go in for play-by-plays in my reviews. (either you’ve already read the book, thus making a recap unnecessary, or you haven’t and an overview would just be a spoilerfest) But to paint this novel in broad strokes, try to imagine the Godfather but with banking instead of… dumping horse heads in people’s beds or whatever. And yes, I said banking. (If you’re looking for dragons, wands and farm boys taking it to dark lords, you’ve illegally downloaded the wrong book, my friend)
And yet there’s no denying that this is a fantasy novel: it takes place in a secondary world, there are battles, made up religions, bickering noble houses and even characters with annoyingly complicated names (although none of these contain apostrophes, thank god) But many other common fantasy trappings are conspicuously absent. Instead we get what is essentially Medieval Economics 101, which sounds like complete shit but is somehow totally awesome. (who knew letters of credit and bills of lading could be so badass?)
Also unlike most fantasy, Parker’s books tend to have a tragic vein running through them.* And although TFK is actually a little softer than some of his other efforts, that’s not to say it lacks for darkness. For example, pretty much the first thing we learn about Basso (the main character) is that he murdered his wife in cold blood. (the fact that this in no way detracts from his likeability is something of a literary miracle) So it’s a bit fucked up, is what I’m saying.
Anyway warning issued, moving on.
I’ve already stated that I think this book is awesome. What is surprisingly difficult to quantify, though, is why. But here goes:
It’s really, really funny. That’s right, amortization schedules are hilarious.
Parker can write his ass off. Top-flight prose all the way, and great dialogue in particular.
You actually feel like you learn something. Pretty sure I could run a bank now.
It doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve ever read. (aside from other K.J. Parker books)
It’s compulsively readable. Like, staying up until 4am when you have an important presentation the next morning readable.
I do have a few qualms though. For one thing, the plot hinges largely on Basso’s love for his sister, and her equally potent loathing of him. But while her hatred – although illogical – is understandable given her personality, it’s less clear why he loves her so ardently. Part of the problem is that Basso’s youth is contained to the first 50 pages, and since this is the only section in which said sister doesn’t hate his guts, there just isn’t much time to show their bond developing. Yes, they are siblings, with all the automatic love such an affiliation implies. But Basso doesn’t give two shits about his own sons, so surely he could find it in his heart not to care about his sister? All of which renders his subsequent decisions regarding her a little hard to swallow.
Also, the plot doesn’t have much of an arc to it. We are treated to an extended sequence of fascinating but ultimately pointless events, capped off by a finale where all the shit finally goes down. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the entire ride – but it felt kind of episodic. I think he could have wrapped things up a hundred pages earlier without changing the story much, and that’s never a good sign.
Overall though, the good far outweighs the bad in my opinion. And I’m far from alone in this: Parker (aka Tom Holt) enjoys a fan base that is nearly cultlike in its devotion. So there you have it, that’s my piece said. Now go read it for yourself.
Weird factor: B-
*And I don’t mean tragic in a ‘setbacks encountered on the road to inevitable victory’ sort of way. It’s more of a ‘lulls you into a false sense of security and then destroys everything you’ve come to hold dear’ kind of thing.