the Little Red Reviewer

Sharps, by K.J. Parker

Posted on: August 4, 2012

Sharps, by K.J. Parker

published July 2012, from Orbit Books

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher










In the border country of Scheria, four talented fencers have been convinced (in many cases  blackmailed) into joining a new national fencing team. The team will travel into war-torn neighboring Permia on a mission of goodwill. it’s been years since the war, and perhaps now is the time to start a discussion between the two countries. If they can’t agree on trade policies or politics, perhaps they can agree to watch the sport everyone in Permia has been going crazy for – fencing.

The story focuses intimately around our four fencers: Suidas, the champion who drank his winnings away; Giraut, who is running from a date with the gallows; Addo, the useless youngest son of Scheria’s military hero; and Isuetz, the lone woman trying to escape an arranged marriage. And travelling with them are their fencing coach Phrantzes and Tzimisces, who is a fixer/political officer.  We know very little about everyone when the story starts, and by the time it ends, well, lets just say that everyone has secrets.

Ahh, the word fencing. It can mean so many things.  Parrying with swords. Selling stolen items. Foils and thefts aside, one can fence with words es well, luring someone into a false sense of security and then causing lethal pain without even drawing a blade.

As the fencing team makes their way into Permia, everything that could possible go wrong does, to the point where some scenes feel like a comedy of errors. The inn they were supposed to stay at is abandoned.  When they do find civilization, the food available is awful and nothing else seems to be available. there are no women’s fencing clothes available for Isuetz, because no one bothered to tell the Permians she’s a woman. Security problems abound everywhere, with near riots in many towns. There seems to have been no communication between the two countries prior to the events, and no one seems to know what’s going on. And even worse? the Permians fence with sharps. Not the dull edged, buttoned foils of Scheria, but deadly sharps, including a local wickedly curved blade called a Messer.  In Scheria, the match is to first touch, in Permia it is to first blood.

Over discussions waiting for dinner and the next coach, and playing chess here and there, the four fencers eventually decide to take matters into their own hands. They didn’t sign up for this national team to get their fingers cut off by some rusty Messer, that’s for sure.  You remember what I said about everyone having secrets, right?

Sharps is a book that is one hundred percent about what’s going on behind the scenes.  Some characters are pure pawns, others are in on what’s going on. And the beauty of it is, you don’t know who knows what until the very end.  Parts of the book were a sloggy drag for me, but once I got to the end I realized why those scenes had to be that way.

My favorite thing about Sharps was Parker’s subtle way of making me think about how information in a narrative is transmitted to the reader.  Watching the unreliable narrator(s) slowly become a purveyor of truth was completely fascinating for me. Since the characters don’t trust each other at first, most of the early conversations are surface small talk – the weather, how bad the food is, how about a quick game of chess, etc. It’s only when the trust begins, that the banter becomes lethal. This book is intrigue piled on top of blackmail and betrayal, with more intrigue layered on top of that.

Nearly every bit of dialog in Sharps is verbal fencing. A bit of footwork here to start the match, possibly a step backwards by the other person who evades the question. An easily parried low thrust, to lure the person into a false sense of security, convincing them their secret is safe with you. And once you’ve gotten what you want out of the conversation? A killing thrust, time to tell them you knew their stupid secret all along, and no, you won’t be trading your secret for theirs. That person will never trust you again, but what do you care, you got what you came for, match over.

This is my first K.J. Parker, and many reviewers who have read and enjoyed other Parker titles are saying this isn’t the author’s best work. Sharps is a fast read, and mostly dialog, so I think this is a good place for people new to Parker to start. Last year, I picked up Devices and Desires (the first in the Engineers Trilogy), got barely halfway through and nearly died of boredom. I have no idea if that slower pace is a Parker trademark, but I was thankful that Sharps had a faster pace, and more direct interaction between characters.

It’s taken me ages to write this review, and that’s unusual for me. Right when I finished Sharps, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I liked the characters, the dialog was excellent once I figured out what was going on, the end absolutely made up for a few of my nitpicks, but for some reason I can’t put my finger on, the book as a whole just wasn’t my cup of tea and left me lukewarm. Intrigue? Betrayal? Banter? Blood?  Blackmail? A smidgen of nicely developed romance? Those are my favorite things! Which makes saying I didn’t adore Sharps more than a bit awkward.  Oh, those are some of your favorite things too, you say? Well in that case, chalk my not-my-cup-of-tea-ness to some unexplainable funk, and pick yourself up a copy of Sharps.


12 Responses to "Sharps, by K.J. Parker"

Great review, as usual. I’m particularly drawn to unreliable narrators.


it wasn’t an easy or a fun review to write, so I’m happy you liked it. I too am usually drawn to unreliable narrators, but Sharps just didn’t work for me. I think i’m just not a Parker kind of girl.


I just ordered Devices & Desires from Amazon, because I’ve almost bought it every time I’ve been in a bookstore for the past two years. I’m hoping I like it better than you did. 😛


you’ll have to do a review! if you finish it you did better than me.


Good review Red. I’ve found KJ Parker very hit and miss with a little too much intrigue and not enough magic but her? first series the Scavenger series was excellent. Heartily recommend that one


I didn’t mind the lack of magic bothersome at all. I do wonder how this book would have been marketed had this been Parker’s debut. Perhaps as a fiction thriller? it’s not really fantasy. it’s got to be tricky for the PR folks sometimes, how do they promote something like this to fantasy fans when there is absolutely no magic in it, whatsoever?

nice to know I’m not the only one who finds Parker hit or miss – seems to be a fairly polarizing author?


I have a odd page count thing with Parker: less a hundred pages = awesome; more than a hundred pages = stay away!

Someday I’ll build up the strength to try one of her long pieces again, but I’m scared even at the thought.


that makes me feel so much better!! After reading so many glowing review of Parker’s work, i thought there was something wrong with me for not liking their stuff.


I only read one book by Parker, and that was Devices and Desires. I did not love it (I did finish it, though). Mainly because I disliked all the characters. I’ve read a few reviews of Sharps and I am thinking maybe I should give Parker a second chance.


for my hundred or so pages of Devices and Desires, I thought the characters were just fine, i was just so bored! it was like “something freakin’ happen already!!!”. apparently i have no patience for slower paced stuff.


I really enjoy KJ Parker’s books, often, but after a while I get burnt out and need a break. I loooove all the stuff with military strategy, which is something I don’t see very often in books. I didn’t know she had a new book out! I think it’s been exactly the appropriate interval since I last read her to give a new book another try.


yeah, this one is brand spankin’ new. The military strategy stuff was very fascinating, and you’re right, we don’t see enough of that. but the pacing, was, well, eh.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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