I just managed to squeeze this book into April so I am, for the time-being, back on track. Although, I have to admit, I’m starting to regret my choice of reading material for this year’s challenge. Probably because I’m asking too much of the books I selected.
Happily, April’s book, Colours in the Steel by KJ Parker, proved to be a good read. It’s Parker’s first novel, and the first book of the Fencer trilogy (followed by The Belly of the Bow and The Proof House). It was first published in 1998, but it doesn’t read like a fantasy that’s more than a decade old.
In the Triple City of Perimadeia, the outcome of court cases are determined by the two advocates fighting each other with swords, often to the death. Bardas Loredan is one such fencer-at-law, and the fact that he’s been practicing his profession for more than ten years indicates that he’s good at it. Temrai is the son of the chief of the plains people, Perimadeia’s on-and-off enemies, and he has come to the Triple City to make swords in its arsenal. Alexius is the city’s Patriarch, the head of the Order which studies the Principle, which is sort of like magic but much more like philosophy. Then there’s Venart and Vetriz, brother and sister traders from the Island, who keep on bumping into Loredan and Alexius…
Out of these characters, and a handful more, Parker sets up a chain of coincidences which eventually lead to the destruction of Perimadeia. While most plots are only fuelled by coincidence, in Colours in the Steel Parker has made the nature of the coincidences themselves a part of the plot. This all begins when Alexius tries to curse Loredan at the behest of a young woman. Which somehow drags Vetriz, who has a natural and unconscious ability in the Principle, into the story. The various cast-members keep on running into each other at fortuitously opportune moments, and they remark on it. Things seem to happen in just such a way as to lead to a specific outcome, and the characters discuss this. But they don’t know why it’s happening, or indeed how it’s happening. The explanation is, I assume, given later in the trilogy. It makes for an original alternative to the vague hints and snippets of back-history most secondary-world fantasies use to drive a series’ story-arc.
On the whole, Colours in the Steel is entertainingly-written. Admittedly, somewhere inside its 503 pages (in my Orbit paperback edition) there’s a 300-page novel fighting to get out. Parker has a tendency to go off on long discourses on subjects which do nothing to advance the plot, and little to flesh out the world. One example is a lecture given by the city’s Chief engineer to Temrai on the construction of trebuchets. True, he uses that knowledge later, but does the reader really need so much detail? And, to be honest, I was never entirely convinced by much of the detail Parker pours into Colours in the Steel. But it sounds plausible. There’s also a description of a typical courtyard in Perimadeia, where one of the characters is sitting, which stretches over several pages and in which nothing actually happens. There are other areas where the prose bogs down like this and the story is in danger of losing all the momentum it has built up to that point: Temrai explaining how he imagines the city cavalry will attack his army, for example; or Athli, Loredan’s clerk, comfort-shopping for stationery.
And yet the plot of the book is a little… odd. The more you read, the less you understand what’s driving the plot. The characters are the ones powering the story, but Parker keeps the engine itself hidden, revealing only hints and clues as the book progresses. For instance, the young woman who wants to curse Loredan – everyone conveniently forgets her name when they encounter her. This makes no sense, and feels whimsical. Even when her actual identity is revealed, knowing her name would have made no difference.
Despite the prolixity and the secretiveness at the heart of the plot, there’s an amusingly sly cynicism to Parker’s prose and world-building. This is perhaps best exemplified by Loredan’s “career” after being made commander-in-chief of Perimadeia’s defences – he’s alternately cast by the city’s leaders as hero, then traitor, then hero again, then traitor…
There’s no doubt that Colours in the Steel is the best of books I’ve so far read for this year’s reading challenge. And yes, if I see the remaining two books in the trilogy I’ll pick them up. I’d like to know how it all pans out. But even more than that, Colours in the Steel is Parker’s debut novel. She has written two more trilogies, and several other novels since. They can only be better than this one. I wouldn’t mind reading them, either.