Tuesday, July 17, 2012

K.J. Parker - The Scavenger Trilogy

There has to be a moment between peace and violence, between one version of history and another, a piece of time in which the thing could go either way. (p. 83, Shadow)

Whoever is behind K.J. Parker's seemingly impenetrable pseudonym is responsible for some of Fantasy's strongest and most intriguing books. Works like The Folding Knife and The Engineer Trilogy are some of the cleverest, most compelling, and most insightful Fantasy around. That being said, Parker's later novels, while all brilliant, seem to be brilliant in the same veins. Those similarities, leading to a feeling that I'd seen this before with the pieces in a different order, ended with me finding The Hammer more than a little disappointing. Hoping to discern whether I'd already read all that Parker really had to say, and hoping very much for a negative answer to that question, I turned to the second of the three trilogies that she wrote before turning to standalones. Thankfully, though the Scavenger trilogy shares a fair few traits with the rest of the author's catalog, it's still very much its own work and is concerned with its own themes and questions. It's also rather excellent.

Poldarn wakes by a river and among the heaped dead of a battle's end. He has no idea who he is, no recollection of his past. Before long, he realizes he's being hunted by more than a few interested parties. They may have a good reason for this. After all, his primary talents seem to be the slaughtering of all his path with his blade and his talent at languages. The trilogy follows Poldarn's attempts to find out who he is and stay alive in the brutal and war torn world he finds himself in.

Oddly enough, the trilogy is at its most chaotic by far when answering our questions; the book's most plot heavy sections can almost come to feel paradoxically like they're aimless by virtue of having far too much meaning crammed in. The mystery at the heart of Scavenger is not difficult to grasp because it is particularly clever but because it is impossible to grasp. Figuring out Poldarn's identity is not a matter of properly arranging the pieces; not only is the reader missing just about all the pieces, they're not even given the board. Revelations come hammering down without foundation.

I don't necessarily mean all that as a slight. Scavenger isn't a Mystery. It's not about clever deductions. Poldarn knows nothing, and it makes sense to throw the reader into the same boat. When a new nugget of information shatters everything we thought we know about the world, we're feeling that along with the character. This is good. But such successive revelations, each one hitting home in an almost utterly unpredictable fashion and tearing what we know to bits and pieces, can leave the reader feeling adrift and seasick, unwilling to put their weight or emotions down on any one part of the story lest it be swept away a few pages down the line.

Luckily, therefore, the novels are not just a relentless hounding of that tumultuous truth. In fact, Poldarn's not all that sure he wants to find it. There is, after all, reason to think his past self was rather a bastard, maybe even a downright evil man. As a result, Poldarn spends much of the trilogy simply doing his best to stay alive and working whatever jobs he needs to. Both the first and third books have him taking various jobs at various points, but it's the second in particular that excels here.

The vast majority of Pattern is spent isolated from the juggernaut questions of the main narrative. That's not to say that it's unrelated, of course. It's tying up a massive angle of the plot and it all leaps back into focus at the novel's end. But, besides allowing Parker to avoid every pitfall commonly associated with middle books, the novel's structure allows for sheer unbridled awesomeness. "There's a whole lot of things to be afraid of in this life," our protagonist is told towards the novel's beginning, "but an exploding mountain isn't one of them" (p. 13, Pattern). But that exploding mountain most certainly is one. In one of the most interesting and innovative plotlines I've seen in Epic Fantasy, Parker pits her main character against a volcano. Brute force is, obviously, not an option. No amount of swordplay will stop the lava before the farm. And so Poldarn is forced to rely on his intelligence and work for a solution with the material at hand. The section works. Brilliantly.

Just because her protagonist has lost his memory doesn't mean that Parker is no longer writing a fiercely intelligent book. By that, however, I should clarify that I don't mean it's a smart book, although it is. I mean that it's a rational one, in which precise and logical reasoning accounts for everything and in which surprises result from a lack of facts, not from an ounce of randomness in the outcome. On the macro level, this means that, like Engineer, this is a story of grand plans. Unlike the excessively narratively engineered Engineer, however, Scavenger is not a story of a single grand plan. No, it often seems like everyone and their dog has a grand plan in these novels, and the interplay between them creates for the kind of manufactured chaos that can only come about when every participant has an itemized list of would-be occurrences that stretches down to the millisecond. As a result of that interplay, and the consequences of the games' others players, we wind up with the interesting result that every plotter is utterly lost in their own plot, stuck midway across the river, with the current dragging us away, and we don't know what the fuck's going on or what we're supposed to do (p. 198, Memory).

On the micro level, the novel's intelligence mostly comes down in the form of combat, which here seems wholly a result of skill, technique, and tactics. These things are absolutes; when man meets man, luck seems to factor not at all. As a result, violence between the characters (of which there is a great deal) can come to feel less like the meeting of men than of machines, predetermined and with an obvious victor if only you'd been allowed to see the whole stats list.

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.

Concerned as it is with the discovery of the protagonist's identity, Scavenger is a series focused on questions of self and responsibility. Is Poldarn the same man as he was when he knew his name? If that man was evil, is he doomed to repeat his crimes? Is evil a product of the man or of the society? The start to all of these comes from the knowledge that: This is an imperfect world, and most people are partly bad (p. 491, Shadow). That, however, is obviously not enough. We cannot simply conclude with the existence of circumstances where the bad part of them comes to the top (ibid), for, were evil purely circumstantial, Poldarn would not continually find his hands so stained.

Destruction breeds demise in Poldarn's wake, but it doesn't do so because of his desires. As he says after one exceptionally awful tragedy, At every turn, all I wanted was to be a good man, honourable, putting others ahead of myself. And this is where I've brought you all to, by doing the right thing. (p. 539 Pattern) A desire to do good is not enough to prevent evil, but that's not to say that the desire to do good is wholly immaterial to evil's occurring. In fact, the two might lead into one another.

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.

To be fair, Poldarn's not your normal chap. When I say that, I'm not just talking about his morality, his sword fighting skills, or his lucky possession of main character status. There is, you see, a certain virulent theory among the faithful of Parker's world. They think that Poldarn might be a god. That he is not just a Poldarn but the Poldarn, the divine Poldarn, the god in the cart, the god that does not know that he is a god, the god that ends the world, and the god that is melting down the old world to make a new one, turning waste and scrap into useful material, loosening it from the bonds of memory, restoring it to its true and original nature by means of the intercession of fire, which forgives and redeems all past sins. (p. 314, Pattern)

Unlike in the majority of her novels that I've read, here Parker doesn't simply ignore the question of religion. No, it is front and center here, and Parker handles it expertly. The Order that the sword monks hail from is strange and foreign to us, not simply Christianity or Greek polytheism masquerading in strange robes. The monks worship perfection, the kind of perfection that is so perfect it is over as it is begun, the kind that takes no time, the kind that effectively does not exist.

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.

All of the weighty and complexly themes that she covers do nothing at all to smother Parker's incomparable wit. Fantasy-dwelling humorists like Terry Pratchett may be able to compete with her in a numerical count of laughs, but Parker is the greatest Fantasy author I've read at combining wry humor and plot, cutting observations and character. Parker is funny. Often hilariously so. But she doesn't sacrifice her stories for brief chuckles, and her forays into the most acerbic sarcasm bolster rather than dampen the novels' mood.

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.

The Scavenger trilogy is a dense, occasionally aimless, unremittingly cynical, and totally brilliant work of Epic Fantasy. Parker is a very clever writer, and an endlessly quotable one, but she's also a writer that ropes you into the tragedy of the tales she tells. I don't think Scavenger is the best entry point into her work, but it further confirms my growing suspicion that Parker may be second only to George R.R. Martin in the ranks of today's Epic Fantasists.


  1. Good God that was awesome! This series was my first time reading Parker and it's because of this series that I will continue to read Parker no matter what he/she releases. I love what you said about how Parker writes combat as if it's between two machines. You really hit the nail on the head with that one. Book 2 really was kind of slow and drawn out, but the ending of book 3 was probably one of the coolest endings I've ever read in any fantasy book..ever... lol Great thoughts man. Makes me want to crack open Sharps a little sooner.

  2. Thanks, Cursed Armada! The trilogy does indeed have a great ending. Parker's one of those writers where the books aren't absolutely -perfect- and I can always find a flaw or two, but, nonetheless, they are just so much more interesting and so much more simply -awesome- than almost anything else that is out there.