Setting: The two former bitter enemies, the countries of Permia and Scheria. (We are in a fantasy world, albeit one which is not so much swords and sorcery, as swords and more swords.)
Story: Permia and Scheria were at war, until a Permian city was wiped out in a single (watery) blow; both sides reluctantly cobbled together a peace treaty, and the open conflict ended. But there is suspicion on both sides, and vested interests who might prefer things they way they were, and who might easily make this happen – unless steps are taken to strengthen the peace, firm up the bonds, and marginalize the warmongers. And so, the idea is formed to send a team of fencers from Scheria to Permia – fencing being a Scherian speciality, but a Permian obsession – to do a goodwill tour. The Scherian team and manager are gathered by various foul means – nobody would volunteer for such a mission – and begin the journey to spread peace by fighting…
Good Stuff: K J Parker knows how to create interesting characters and interesting situations. Although the central plot is routine, the interaction of the characters – spiced up by a few surprises and plot twists – keeps the reader engrossed in the fate of the fencing team, their manager, and their official aide.
Without an ounce of an orc, with no dwarven dealings, and managing to keep magic out, the author delivers a solid fantasy world which is believable (if bloody), rich in possibilities, and yet does not prevent the human story from being told. It is ironical, but true; in this fantasy, the strongest plank is the human element. K J Parker’s people are often complex, but never boring. Their actions, dialogue, and attempts to prosper, or even just stay alive, make for a compelling adventure.
As hinted above, the world around the characters is not neglected, and the author does manage to present fascinating aspects of the two countries, its peoples, personalities, culture and conflicts.
Finally, given the central nature of fencing, it’s just as well that Parker can write action sequences and make them come alive. There’s blood and guts action aplenty to supplement the fencing.
Not So Good Stuff: Once or twice, I wasn’t sure where the story was going. This may have been down to me missing key detail, or sloppy editing, or the author setting out false leads, or setting up future possibilities that were never developed.
I also would have liked to have known more about the world changing events going on away from the fencing team. There were some snapshot views, but I longed for more. It would have lengthened the book and taken away from what type of novel the author was tring to write, so this is very much a personal preference rather than a criticism of the book.
Note: K J Parker’s books have been such a joy to read, that I can recommend all of them. And I wait, not so patiently, for the next one.