K.J. Parker does one thing really, really well: s/he ties the reader up in knots, trying to figure out who’s plotting what, and why.
Sharps is full of a bunch of different factions maybe trying to start a war, not so long, as it happens, since the last one ended. a small group of fencers is sent to a neighboring country as a goodwill tour, theoretically to mend fences and as a token of peace.
except that each of the fencers is hiding something; at least one (but which one?) is surely an assassin; and all have been coerced into joining the tour. the fun begins before they even cross the border.
so it’s a great deal of fun, trying to keep up with revelations and sort and re-sort the pieces, trying to make them fit.
you can never fault a K.J. Parker novel on plot.
but this one, alas, is rather thin on character. they’re not terribly complex, our fencers, more symbolic than real. the case of Iseutz, the lone female fencer, is particularly disappointing–she’s just a ball of anger through most of the book. it might have been more fun to explore why a woman whose only option in life is to get married might be a ball of anger, rather than just use it to score points. we have also a coward, a soldier with a bad case of PTSD, an old man who just wants to be left alone, and a the spare of the “heir and a spare.” Parker pulls some fun twists with each of these, and to be sure there are unexpected turnings in the book, but in terms of insight or change, none of these characters is particularly well-illuminated.
which would also be ok, but that it makes it hard to care about whether the war that’s maybe going to get started, or stopped, or ya this time really started but by a different faction, actually does get started. there’s just nobody to hang an attachment on, to care whether they live or die or get rolled over by a war machine.
i’ve read quite a few of Parker’s books by now. the Engineer trilogy was, in my opinion, the best of them–there were quite a few characters in there to care about, to genuinely despise, to sustain an interest in. but i have, overall, a wish that Parker would write a little deeper.
maybe s/he writes just to develop these origami plots, and this is where the fun lies for him/her. i don’t know. but i am generally just a little wistful when i finish a Parker book: may I have some more, please?