Review: The Folding Knife

No spoilers.

The Folding Knife is the second K.J. Parker novel I've read after Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City. The Folding Knife was published in 2010, and like Sixteen Ways, it's a historical fantasy set in a secondary world devoid of magic.

This novel is written in the third-person and almost entirely from the point of view of Basso, a cunning banker who quickly claws his way to the top of the government. As First Citizen, he reshapes the financial and political institutions of the Vesani Republic to suit his needs. The Folding Knife is a study in hubris, and the opening chapter depicts a disgraced Basso in the present; it is the road to this inevitable fall that takes up the rest of the story. Personal and political conflicts are closely intertwined, suffused with tragic moments that tug at the heartstrings.

The setting appears heavily based on the Byzantine Empire, and the names of characters and places successfully tread the fine line between historically plausible and clearly fictional. The customs and beliefs of the Vesani, along with the various tribal factions, feel authentic and natural.

While I loved Sixteen Ways, I struggled to get through The Folding Knife. It's longer, yes, but I also found large swathes of it bloated and plodding. The prose is bare and uninspiring. Very little is left to the reader's imagination, and every nuance and detail is indiscriminately spelled out on the pages, usually in the form of melodramatic dialogue. Attempts at witty comebacks fail to stick more often than they land. Aside from the highest parentheses-per-paragraph count I've seen, there are some rather abrupt POV shifts within scenes, which make for a jarring reading experience.

I enjoyed the technical (but dumbed down for readers like me) talk of economics, warfare, and numismatics in Sixteen Ways, and this book delivers even more of it. The bits about epidemiology were a nice touch in particular, though they strained my suspension of disbelief considering the time period. That said, I really like this aspect of Parker's style, and I hope to continue seeing it in his other books.

As far as characters go, Basso is sufficiently fleshed out to have captured my interest. He's much less likeable than Orhan, but is nonetheless an interesting character to follow. I can't say the same for the other characters, who are mostly bland cut-outs or bureaucratic drones with a Latin name attached to them.

The Folding Knife is not a bad book, but it did not match the hype at all, and it's not exactly a short read. There are flashes of brilliance, but I found it much less polished than Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City. I'd strongly recommend those interested in K.J. Parker to try the latter instead.

Day 21 of #100DaysToOffload

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