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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliance from fantasy's most cryptic star, 19 April 2011
By 
J. Shurin "carnivore" (London) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Hammer (Paperback)
nigmatic KJ Parker. (All reviewers are bound by contract to refer to Parker as "enigmatic" - amazing what writing under a pseudonym will do for you.)

Parker's books all share several common elements: mainly tight plotting and an absorbingly bleak view of the world. There are no clearly delineated heroes and villains in Parker's books. The cliché would be to declare it all a matter of perspective, but Parker gleefully toys with that as well. Parker enjoys self-aware protagonists: "heroes" that question the morality - even the relative morality - of their own actions.

In The Hammer, the lead character is Gignomai met'Oc, youngest son in the met'Oc family. The met'Oc are exiled nobility, living in squalor in an unnamed colony far from Home. They are (or were) quite a powerful family and, perhaps more importantly, they have the colony's few guns. The rest of the colony is composed of farmers and trappers - trading their wares back Home for those manufactured goods they need to survive. Outside of the colony, an unknown quantity of Savages rove at will, doing their best to stay out of everyone's way.

The three factions share an uneasy peace. The met'Oc are rich in pride and poor on material goods, so they raid the outlying farms for the essentials of life. The colonists tolerate the met'Oc because they're believed to be the first line of defense against the Savages. Besides, they're nobles - raiding and depravity are what they do, right? And the Savages actually don't believe in anyone else. This isn't stupidity, but a sort of wilful ignorance brought on by their view of the world: the colonists and met'Oc don't make sense to them, so the Savages simply refuse to acknowledge their existence.

Gignomai, through the course of the book, upsets this delicate status quo. For his own private reasons he sets in motion an elaborate and terrible plan that will change the lives of everyone around him.

Again, readers familiar with Parker's work will see this coming - virtually all of his/her books focus around exceptional individuals, their complicated schemes and the devastating impact that that one person's single-minded purpose can have on an entire society. Often, as in The Engineer Trilogy, the scheme itself is the focus of the book, with the motivating force taking a backseat. In Parker's latest-but-one, The Folding Knife, the balance is shifted and the book focuses more on motivation than execution. The Hammer falls into the latter category - Gignomai's scheme is interesting to see unveiled, but the focus is more on uncovering his motivation and, once learnt, deliberating over the "rightness" of his actions.

Adding a further veil of complication is the recurring discussion of belief. The met'Oc are nobles because they believe they are genuinely superior - a notion that Gignomai ostensibly eschews but still embraces through his every action. The colony members also believe in met'Oc nobility - the only thing that prevents them from lynching them with pitchforks. The Savages are believed to be a threat, but then, their own belief prevents them from ever being a danger. These layers of belief aren't mere matters of individual perception, but a deeply engrained system of faith that keeps the cogs of society turning. Gignomai is the first person in the colony willing to challenge everyone's politely-shared preconceptions. He's driven by another set of beliefs that override them, and this is what gives him the strength to overturn the whole apple cart.

The sole flaw in The Hammer is a tacked-on denouement that spells out the karmic resolutions that had, previously, been only implied. It is an unworthy footnote to an otherwise exceptional text. One of Parker's strengths is the ability to write ambiguous endings, and the closing pages of The Hammer are an airy wave of the hand to readers expecting a satisfying resolution - and a rude gesture to those that aren't.

I would also, and this is a purely selfish criticism, prefer a return to trilogies. The space of three volumes lets Parker raise more elaborate narrative questions and then dive deeper into exploring the answers. Although I appreciate the rigorous regularity of the recent stand-alones, I'd happily trade frequency for depth.

Parker knows how to tell a story and how to keep it trotting along. Even whilst tackling the Big Questions, The Hammer is held together by an unadorned writing style that makes the book seductively readable. Parker is one of the most challenging and courageous authors in genre fiction, using abstracted settings and streamlined narratives to address complicated, difficult questions. He or she is doing exactly what fantasy could do, and so maddeningly rarely does.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If You Can't Cry Wolf, Kill Wolf, 20 Jan 2011
This review is from: The Hammer (Paperback)
The third in a sequence of three standalone fantasy novels, after The Company in 2008 and The Folding Knife last year, The Hammer is handily the most impressive of the lot. It begins with a fabulous little fable about family life in the Met'Oc compound, a hilltop stronghold of fallen-from-favour nobles exiled to the fringes of an distant island colony, where life is hard and the rich have no choice but to be as the poor: lowly subsistence farmers eking out an existence from the ground beneath their feet.

The Met'Oc haven't adapted terribly well to the calamitous change in circumstances, so when young Gignomai is tasked with the care of three chickens, he shoulders his seven years of age to take his responsibility seriously. A week of feeding and mucking on, the chickens are killed; someone or something has gotten into the run and slaughtered the things whole. No matter, Gig's brothers Luso and Stheno say to the boy... it wasn't your fault. (p.2) Thus they entrust a further three chickens to him.

A further three chickens are found dead in their coop the next day. Though in principle relieved of his ill-fated responsibilities, Gignomai takes it upon himself to discover exactly what's been doing the devouring; stays up late one night to see a wolf, quite likely "the last surviving wolf on the Tabletop, or maybe in the whole colony," (p.3) killing the things. He's afraid no-one would believe him if he tells the truth, yet if he does nothing - the selfsame nothing his family will surely continue to do, as is their way - the chickens, of which the Met'Oc's already-sparse supply is dwindling, will keep getting killed.

So it's down to him. If he can't cry wolf, his only choice is to kill wolf. Canny from the first, Gig lays a trap for the creature, barricades it inside the woodshed, and burns the beast into the great goodnight... chalking up "half the winter's supply of seasoned timber [...] and twelve dozen good fence posts" (pp.5-6) not to speak of the remaining chickens as collateral damage. He regrets his short-sightedness, but reasons that at least the job's done; no-one else was going to do it, and it needed doing. Only "Next time, he decided, I'll make sure I think things through." (p.7)

Fourteen years later, Gignomai gets his chance. He escapes the Tabletop, begins work on a factory which stands to revolutionise the colony, and in so doing sets in motion a grand scheme decades in the making and years in the undertaking. Which he describes thusly:

"This great and noble work you have undertaken---"
"It's not like that," Gignomai said quietly. "It's more sort of personal. An indulgence, really."
The old man looked at him, head slightly one one side. "But for the good of the people, surely."
"I want justice," Gignomai said sharply. It wasn't what he had been planning to say. "Doesn't always do anybody any good," he said. "But it's what I want." (p.228)

Justice seems a theme Parker could wring an entire career in fantasy fiction from. It was what Basso gave, and in turn got, so memorably in The Folding Knife, and in The Hammer it is Gignomai Met'Oc's absolute ideal, quite against good reason. Justice was what Gig served upon the poor wolf in the prologue - a wolf very likely hobbled by his own family's hunters and surviving, until it didn't, the only way it could: by scavenging, just as the Met'Oc have had to since their banishment - and justice is what he means now to serve upon another party who've somehow offended his sensibilities.

He's a monster, is Gig. You won't realise just how till the final curtain call, and I'll be damned if I ruin the last bitter twist of the knife, but believe you me. That said, you'll love him, hate him, and love to hate him... same as I did. He's a fantastic character: sly and single-minded, self-righteous, sparking with wit and cunning and eternally tormented by the vague spectre of some evil around which the book's three parts - variously entitled Seven Years Before, The Year When and Seven Years After - revolve. Add to that, Gig's as unreliable a narrator as they come: "His voice was so pleasant, so sensible and reassuring - you could trust that voice, you could be sure that anything it said was obviously the right thing," (p.260) and indeed, in the early-going, Parker's disarmingly unfussy narrative doesn't leave room for us to question the littlest Met'Oc's motives. Everything he does seems to be the right thing.

Chapter by chapter, however, a sense of unease builds. Parker is at pains to stress that what good Gig does is in service - always in service - of some other purpose. At a certain point even his closest friend and confidante realises he has "a special way of lying, which involved mostly telling the truth." (p.280) In short order you get to wondering what in the world Gig is up to, and it's a fine line to traverse - the balance between engendering empathy and emotional investment and knowingly deceiving the reader - which the author walks in step with her protagonist. Which is to say ably.

It bears saying, I suppose, that The Hammer is of a particular breed of fantasy fiction, much less intent on the fantasy than the fiction. As Gig quips, "Somewhere there might just possibly be dragons, unicorns and similar mythic beasts, but he was pretty sure he'd never encounter one, and most certainly not here." (p.114) Parker has never been one to whip out a troll horde for +5 genre appeal, nor does she do so here - and I wouldn't have it any other way. However, if I were forced to find fault in my experience of The Hammer, it wouldn't be with The Hammer itself - short, perhaps, an abundance of overbearing similes in the last section - so much as with the stomping grounds the author has over twelve novels and a handful of more abbreviated work hammered out for herself: for the more K. J. Parker you've read, the less surprising it'll be that Gignomai Met'Oc, as with her every other protagonist, is a mastermind of deviant proportions. Sometimes a track record of surprises can come to undermine, to render the next surprise that much less surprising. Surely anyone who remembers M. Night Shyamalan will swear by that.

Anyone?

Anyway. It would be doing The Hammer a terrible disservice to say it's simply the same, again, because Parker has shaved back the grander ambitions characteristic of her past work significantly, the better to tell a more personal tale; a more intimate, and so more immediately engaging narrative. Its scope might be much reduced, yet it's testament to Parker's laser-fine focus that The Hammer's smaller scale inhibits not at all the novel's sense of import.

I expected The Hammer to be a pleasant diversion: smart and fun and unfussy... you know the like. And it is all those things, indeed it is - par for the K. J. Parker course - but what the secretive author has proffered up here is so much more satisfying, so much more profound, than that and that alone. From least to most, then, this stunning standalone fantasy is a chronicle of the re-invention of industry - the particulars of which are fascination themselves; it's a many-faceted rumination on the point and the price of justice (a subject presumably so close to Parker's literary heart because of her and her partner's profession in the pursuit of said); and it is a provocative portrait, last and not least, of a character so complex and conflicted, so dark and somehow endearing, few are likely to rival Gignomai Met'Oc until Parker tops him herself, whenever the next of her novels rolls around.

Which, by the by, can't come soon enough. In the interim, take it in hand that The Hammer is very possibly Parker's finest fantasy to date.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another good read, 17 Aug 2011
This review is from: The Hammer (Paperback)
I have just finished this one. I find myself lost in the sheer unlikliness of it all, but just have to follow right to the end. KJP really knows how to write a good fight and sometimes bloody situations. The technical parts are always true to form.
I have been a fan of Parker since the Fencer Trilogy, he has never let me down.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great sequel, 14 Jan 2011
By 
Gareth Wilson - Falcata Times Blog "Falcata T... - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Hammer (Paperback)
If there is one thing that you can tell, it's a KJ Parker novel, the writing style, the prose and the dialogue all scream this author and to be honest you know what you're going to get, a story with guts, glory and above all else a principle character facing not only personal dilema's but also overcoming the odds to succeed.

Its definitely beautifully written, the characters vibrant and above all else a dialogue style that really is enjoyable so much so that you feel that you know the principle player pretty well. Back that up with a reasonably paced tale backed up with an established history (The Company) and you know that it's a title that really will fulfil all the promise of the book blurb.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Decent, but the cynicism can be tiring after a while., 23 May 2012
By 
A. Whitehead "Werthead" (Colchester, Essex United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Hammer (Paperback)
Seventy years ago, a colony was founded on the western tip of an unexplored landmass. The colonists were supposed to mine silver, but didn't find any. Instead they farmed and lived in uneasy peace with the natives to the east. Later, the noble met'Oc family fled to the colony as exiles. Living on an impregnable plateau and raiding the colonists for livestock, they have not been the best of neighbours. Gignomai met'Oc, the youngest son of the family, rebels against his father and is disinherited, sparking a series of events that will define the future of the family and the colony.

So, what do you call a novel which is not SF, which is set in an invented world but has no magical elements in it whatsoever, but where the spine of the book revolves around science and engineering? Science Fantasy? Fantasy Engineering? Of course, this is such a narrow field that you can simply call it a K.J. Parker novel and anyone who's read her* work before will know what you're talking about.

The Hammer is Parker's twelfth novel and is a stand-alone book, not part of any series, although it is set in the same world as just about all of her work. Those familiar with Parker will know what to expect: a cast of complex characters who fail to fall into neat categories of good and bad; a dry, black sense of humour; and an occasional tendency to turn the book into an engineering treatise for a few paragraphs.This latter trait is usually extremely important to the plot, which in this case turns on the different calibres of primitive bullets and the practicalities of setting up a factory, but can slow down the narrative at key moments if the author is not careful.

As usual, the book revolves around one character, in this case Gignomai, a bright lad who - understandably - does not want to spend his whole life living on a plateau farmstead with his distant father and somewhat ruthless brothers. Gignomai is a familiar Parker character: one man with a grand vision who is able to prevail over those of lesser vision through a mixture of ruthlessness, good team-management skills and thinking outside the box. In this case, however, Gignomai is also reliant on his friend Furio, whose essentially serves as his conscience, and Furio's father Marzo, whose unexpected diplomatic skills during a crisis end up with him being declared de facto mayor, to his own distress. These three characters form the core of the novel and drive forward the plot. They're all well-realised, but it's disappointing that a promising female character, the would-be doctor Teucer, almost vanishes from the novel after being set up as more of an important player.

The plot is somewhat complex and involved, relying as it does on mysteries, sleight of hand and the economic workings of the colony, although the small scale of the book means it's easy to keep everything straight. Parker has a deliciously twisted imagination and sense of plotting, and keeps the pages flying by as you try to work out what's going on. The novel is on the short side for an epic fantasy (if that's what it even is) at 400 pages, and Parker's prose style - deceptively straightforward writing masking more complex characterisation - is highly readable.

Overall, then, The Hammer is a fine novel that's fairly compelling and well-characterised. Where it falls down is that Parker's air of cynicism - present in most of her works to varying degrees - is a little too dominant here (instead of being more nicely balanced, as in the splendid Folding Knife) and some of her economic ideas are rather odd. The book initially presents the colony as being set on a poor landmass, with some valuable resources but nothing too special, explaining its small size. The later suggestion that it's on the edge of a mostly unexplored continent just a week's sailing from the Vesani Republic not so much beggars as breaks credulity. How has this land not been colonised on a much larger scale already?

Still, despite these lapses The Hammer (***) remains an above-average novel from one our better and more interesting fantasy writers. It's certainly a lesser work from Parker, but one that's still worth checking out if you can overlook the minor faults. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

* No, I don't know if Parker is a man or a woman, but I'm going with the majority view that she's a she in the absence of any other information.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and entertaining., 14 May 2011
By 
plot hound (Dublin, Ireland) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Hammer (Paperback)
Gignomati is a likeable character, he has more depth than most of Parker's 'heroes', the other characters are believable enough with plenty of flaws to go around.
The motivation of the characters is also very well fleshed out and understandable.

This is a revenge story with a twisted family background so Gignomati's character does parallel the protagonists from the Engineer and the Fencer trilogies but this is a more human sized story, no wars and empires just a small group of people, so Gig comes across as more believable and human.

The pace is good and there are a few plot twists.
We know from the beginning that there is a deeper game being played so there are no real surprises but we get to see the characters' confusion as things progress.

This does feel much gentler than the previous books and slightly less cynical.

The ending is very well done with all the plot threads being neatly tied up.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking and well written., 26 Feb 2011
By 
Robin Monks "robinm0" (Glossop, Derbyshire, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Hammer (Paperback)
This book served as my introduction to the works of K J Parker. I'm not sure about its classification as fantasy as the only element of that genre present is the medieval setting of the story. Otherwise, there is a distinct lack of dungeons, dragons, magic and other contrivances that clutter many other books and frequently make them unreadable. I won't detail the plot - covered thoroughly in another review. Suffice to say that I agree with the conclusion - a very well written, thought-out and thought-provoking piece.
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The Hammer
The Hammer by K. J. Parker (Paperback - 20 Jan 2011)
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