The Folding KnifeThe Folding Knife by K.J. Parker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

the ultimate fantasy novel of banking, politics, and war.

which makes it sound mostly kind of boring, but really it’s quite awesome. K.J. Parker has never written a novel that didn’t, upon opening to page one, wrap its inky fingers directly around your spine and compel you to read. this particular book is a definitely odd experience for a fantasy world, however.

most of the things that matter in a fantasy world get completely ignored here: magic, elves, outsized morality, grandiose battles, and our ugly twin friends Good and Evil. instead we get business, the sausage-making of politics, and wars that turn not on heroics but on bacteria.

in a way, it’s a damned shame this is a fantasy novel, although only because that label will diminish its readership. altho i’ve no idea whether she intended it as such, the novel is a near-perfect allegory of the presidency of GW Bush and the war in Afghanistan/Iraq. (Or equally any number of similarly disposed heads of state who demolish their own countries, but hey, i loathe GW and anyway he’s my recent history, so…).

Basso, our protag, is at the beginning of the novel the son of a feckless but lucky banker-father who, through no skill of his own except marvellous bullshitting, gets elected to the government of the Vesani Republic. Basso eventually far outstrips his father, amassing a huge fortune and getting elected First Citizen. Basso has a half-mocking daydream of one day being remembered as Basso the Magnificent and a fistful of plans for empire.

here’s the thing about Basso, though–unlike GW, he’s really hard to hate. for one thing, he’s funny. he’s not self-aggrandizing, and he hasn’t any dreams of glory. (plus, for you GW anti-fans out there, he actually doesn’t have daddy issues.) he isn’t greedy in the usual sense, and while he hasn’t any illusion of modesty, he doesn’t inflate his own self-assessment, either. he’s an oddly balanced, stable guy with no glaring character flaws but one.

he’s kind of sociopathic. there are only two people he loves, and he doesn’t love either of them in the same sense that we mere normals employ. he loves his sister, who loathes him even more than i loathe GW, and he loves his nephew, her son. he has zero understanding of and no concern whatsoever for the common run of humans. if one of his business deals improves the lot of some group or another, that’s frosting on the cake. nice to have, but the cake is the thing.

his sociopathy interferes with his rise to power not one whit, nor his day-to-day running of the government.

this is what makes the novel so intriguing: here’s this guy you can’t hate, not really, doing a bunch of stuff that sometimes benefits large groups of people when it coincidentally serves his purposes, and all in all things go along for everybody pretty swimmingly. until he starts a war in Mavortis.

so in a fantasy world we have a book of commerce and grubby politics, and oh yes war, and not one person in the whole hierarchy of power functions from principle or moral standards or vision or even aspiration to improve anyone’s lot but their own. the banking and political concerns are so thoroughly intertwined that they are synonymous. war is about markets, with a cheap coat of of self-defense rhetoric; and yet there’s no real dissent.

sound familiar? sounds like the Beltway, to me. who’d a thunk it, a painfully astute analysis of our times, in a fantasy novel? wish i could make it required reading in Washington. but they’d just make their aides read it while they were out grubbing up some re-election cash.