Sharps is ‘low fantasy’, a story set in a world that is definitely not our own, but without magic or strange creatures, featuring no supernatural beings or non-human races. It could be historical fiction except for the fact that it does not fit into any actual historical setting of our world. The setting felt vaguely Renaissance to me, but different enough to feel like a true fantasy world. This is a very different kind of fantasy from the dragons and wizards of other stories, or even the gritty battles and adventurers of the more modern fantasy epic. Dealing with the aftermath and politics of war, it is realistic but not grimdark, and though it follows the fate of two countries, it is essentially a character driven story, narrowing in on a specific set of people and exploring not only how events affect them, but how they could change the future of their nations. For a story about sword-fighting, it is a more thoughtful, slower-paced and political book than one might imagine.
Sharps starts out incredibly strong; interesting characters are introduced rapidly and there is a thrilling chase scene told with a particularly engaging and likeable voice. The voice belongs to Giraut, who we might believe will be the main character, or at least an important one, in the rest of the book. This isn’t really the case, and unfortunately Giraut’s voice becomes less interesting as he leans towards being a little whiney or even boring at times. This is a shame, as I feel he could have been a great character if given more to do. I felt similarly about Iseutz, the only woman on the journey. Thankfully, the other characters do make up for this, as Addo slowly begins to open up, revealing intriguing hidden depths, and Suidas’ past begins to catch up with him. It appears that several of the people in the coach are hiding secrets, and it soon becomes apparent to everyone that there is more to the tour than they have been told. The characters play off each other well, some sympathetic, some aggravating, others mysterious, and there is always a surprising undercurrent of humour, even in the more tense sections of the novel.
And tension seems to be something that K. J. Parker does very well. There are scenes where the atmosphere is so stretched that it feels like a sneeze would break it – in particular an incident in one of the foreign cities that starts a riot, building from faint noises, snippets of overheard information and distant fires, to running through the streets desperately trying to locate the coach and facing violent mobs. Danger is never far away, and even a quiet ride on a country road, with figures glimpsed in the distance, can seem deeply sinister. This tension on the tour is balanced with much drier sections in which various important people meet and attempt to decide the fate of entire nations. There are many of these aspiring puppet-masters at work, and all of them must include the fencers in their plans, one way or another. These sections are occasionally a little too long, but they do add a sense of helplessness to the journey, that the fencers, the characters we care about, are merely pawns in other people’s plans. The twisty turny political undercurrent of the book is cleverly done, giving events an added layer of intrigue.
There are sections of the story in which events do, perhaps, push forwards a little too slowly. After the amazing beginning that grabs the reader immediately and hurls them into the story, there is a break for a section that seemed, well, a bit info-dumpy. There is rather a lot of political information and history of various nations and their war for the reader to push through before getting back to current events. There were points where I wished the story had not jumped away from the coach journey and the main characters for so long. However, it is certainly worth holding on, as the tour and the characters (such well written characters!) do become extremely compelling, and by the end this was a very difficult book to put down.
I only really have one larger criticism of this book, and it is of the ending. There is a mystery tied to the political intrigue of the book, concerning why the fencers are in Permia in the first place, and an enigmatic assassin who is to be revealed at the end. The revelation itself, I felt, was a little disappointing and rather obvious, and I actually read on for quite a while expecting it to be a bluff or red-herring, a twist waiting to be double-twisted. As I came to the final pages, however, it became clear that this wasn’t the case, and that the simplest explanation had indeed been the correct one. This wouldn’t have mattered so much if the story hadn’t spent so much time building a sense that something very clever was going on behind the scenes, and that we were waiting for something that would surprise us. Still, it is not a bad ending, and I am willing to admit that my expectations by that point were probably too high. Otherwise, this is a very good book, and I’d highly recommend Sharps to any fantasy fan. I will definitely be reading more Parker in the future.