At times, this can be downright terrifying, with human reactions honed to the point that life and death become nothing more than a formula. Sword monks are taught until they are perfect; anything that steps into the circle about them will be sword-struck as soon as it does so. A brother of the order who’s been trained in the draw, we are told, need fear nothing on earth, there's nothing, not even a god, he can't kill (p. 185, Shadow). Badass and frightening. This is good.
But sword monks aren't the only ones with such inhuman powers, and other match ups don't seem to make any sense at all. Combat can be distilled down to sword monks kill almost everyone, but raiders kill sword monks. But why are raiders so good? The reason that we get – their ability to run past and through their enemies as if they weren't really there (p. 485, Shadow) – seems to make no sense at all. And the way that the rankings are flawless, without a single deviation, without a single casualty against a lower tier, can begin to feel artificial.
In a passage rather foreshadowing of the entirety of The Folding Knife, a villain towards the trilogy's end ascribes the worst atrocities to nothing other than guilt. It's not a flaw suffered by evil men. After all, evil men are immune to it [guilt] (p. 561, Memory). But Poldarn is not. He is part evil and part good (p. 562), and, as a result, was driven by guilt: Guilt made you abandon your people, your followers, your wife, me, without a moment's hesitation. […] If you'd been an evil man like me, Ciartan, thousands of people who died in pain and fear would still be alive. (p. 561, Memory)
It is, in Parker's world (or at least in the final speaker's estimation) worse (ibid) to feel and care rather than to simply calculate. Of course, most people, as I've previously said (and as this speaker allows) are the same way. But it's the combination of temperament and circumstance that led to the true horrors of the novel. In the cases of the emotional majority, it doesn't matter (p. 562, Memory), for they wholly lack power. But Poldarn, not only powerful but the only one of the mighty who might be said to care for those around him, has the ability to wreak true hell on his fellow man.
In religion, we are told, the perfect draw doesn't even happen. (p. 83, Shadow) For them, perfection can be sought in what they call applied religion (p. 420, Shadow) and in what we call sword fighting. It is, of course, that quest for perfection, of a variety that just happens to border on the martial, that renders the monks so deadly. All of this – perfection through the drawing of the blade, the god in the cart that ends the world and does not know that he is a god, and all sorts of other juicy ideas I don’t have the space to even begin to dive into – could easily come across as either silly or hopelessly and impenetrably pretentious. Parker manages to miss both pitfalls and manages to achieve a fantasy religion that, at its best moments, bears the gravitas of the divine.
Those forays are often laugh out loud funny (In cases where the terrain doesn't agree with the map, standing orders state that the terrain must be in error. (p. 223, Shadow)), but the best of them go farther still, taking on such an air of mocking profundity as to almost seem like philosophical aphorisms surfacing in the narrative's midst, such as Poldarn's near death observation that: Death and haircuts should both be free of idle and distracting chatter. (p. 172, Pattern) Besides all of that, a great deal of credit simply must be given to any author ballsy and quick-thinking enough to use my god! as a pun and cheeky enough to compliment their own imagery within the narrative.