Sunday, October 26, 2008

"The Company", by K.J. Parker (Orbit)

The master of slow-burn series fantasy’s first standalone

The word that can best describe K.J. Parker’s approach to fantasy and writing is “slow”. In an age when everything is “blockbuster” or “fast-paced”, with novels leaving readers “breathless”, it’s rather refreshing to come across an author who takes their time with plotting and development. Parker’s widely acclaimed Engineer Trilogy seemed to many to move at a glacial speed, so the notion of reading a single-volume story from the author might be more appealing to those with limited free time or attention spans.

The war is over, and it’s time to return to normality, life as a mere civilian. Former General Teuche Kunessin returns to his hometown, Faralia, hoping to convince his former comrades to move their whole lives to an island that Kunessin’s managed to acquire (it technically belongs to the army Kunessin’s now left), in a hope to start over with a new colony. Of, course, they all do, and so they set off for a new life. Unfortunately for our protagonists, things don’t go as Kunessin planned. Partly this is due to the complex interpersonal relationships Parker has constructed for his characters.

Parker’s attention to detail is phenomenal. Nothing is left unexplained – whether it’s an explanation of how the tanning process works in Parker’s world, or ship-building, or renovating dilapidated buildings… Everything is explained as if Parker is somehow addicted to exposition; educating as well as entertaining his readers. This level of detail was both welcome and unwelcome. Welcome because I often feel that some authors would rather not craft a whole new world completely, relying on their plotting and characters to draw the readers' attention. Unwelcome because it slowed the book down quite a lot (it's something I'm battling to stop myself doing, too). The plot, back-stories, and characters unfold over the whole course of the novel, so we only get the full picture well into the book. Everything builds up to an ending that will leave some disappointed, others unhappy, but probably most will be fine with.

The novel is a fantasy novel, set as it is in a different world, but that’s about where it stops resembling what most would consider “fantasy”. It’s as if someone took a historical crime thriller/caper and transposed it onto a completely fictitious world. But really, Parker's work is much more about the characters he writes than the world they are set in. It makes me wonder if he wanted to be a psychologist at some point in his life.

Filled with the depth, complexity, wry one-liners (some really are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them), and an interest in the bleak nature of the human condition readers have come to expect from K.J. Parker. While I generally prefer a faster pace to my reading material, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy The Company. It was far more involved than many fantasy novels, which certainly made the reading experience different – Parker effectively writes literary fantasy. I would probably still recommend authors such as Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss to those with more of a casual interest in fantasy (they write at equal length, but manage to keep the pace going from the frist page to the last). For fantasy lovers looking for something a little more challenging, I’d definitely recommend Parker’s work.

The shorter form should attract new readers, but long-time fans will no doubt get just as much satisfaction out of The Company as Parker's previous trilogies. My final word on the novel? A very rewarding read.

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