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3.8 out of 5 stars
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on 5 July 2012
Sharps is set in two small countries, Permia and Scheria, that live in the shadow of greater empires. They fill that shadow with violence - Permia and Scheria were at war for decades, and now glare at one another in a tense (and tenuous) cease-fire. Despite their bitter rivalry, the two countries know little about one another. Their spies and agents scuttle back and forth across the demilitarized zone, but, as far as the greater population is concerned, their rivals are totally alien.

The one passion that unites both countries is fencing. Sharps begins in Scheria, where a handful of unlikely fencers are recruited to form a national team and invited to tour Permia for exhibition matches. They are the first planks in a great diplomatic bridge - some of the first Scherians to enter Permia (as guests) in over a decade, and a vital opportunity to reconnect the people of the two countries.

Naturally, no sane person would want to be involved, so the fencers are encourages through a variety of persuasive means. Suidas is a master of the art (and deeply in debt). Phrantzes, the manager, is a former champion (with a wife in 'protective custody' by the government). Giraut is a talented amateur (and is facing a prison sentence for murder). Addo is another skilled young fencer (and his father is known for drowning an entire Permian city during the war). Iseutz, the lone female member of the team, has perhaps the least sinister motive: it is either this or stay home and get married. Somewhere between zero and five (inclusive) of the team are also spies, traitors, psychopaths, evil geniuses and heroes. Of course all of them are far more complex characters than these blithe summaries, motivated by forces both secret and overt.

What the characters aren't is stupid. They're cunning, clever, self-interested people with authority, confidence and complex motivations. Much something by Le Carré, they spend a great deal of the book doing their best to trip one another up.

Sharps also appeals through its surprisingly epic scope. Although a long way from writing a 'chosen one' narrative, the book has a more familiar fantasy structure than Parker's other work: five reluctant heroes are off to save the world. Parker has repeatedly written about the impact of small people on great powers, but, in the past, the focus has been entirely on the individual. The Engineer Trilogy, for example, is about one man's plot to change the face of the world. But the face of the world is incidental: all he wants is to go home. The Folding Knife is similar - a man sets out to forge an empire, but all he really desires is the love of his family.

Sharps differs because the characters are subject to the great scheme, and not the other way around. However clever Addo, Giraut and company are, they're merely pawns in the great game. They're enslaved to the mission - their own schemes merely amount to how much they can wriggle on the hook.

Permia and Scheria are brought out in detail - the two countries and the empires that surround them become very real. As well as the expected interest in swords and blades and fencing, Parker adds in some unexpected trivia. The reader is introduced to the pickled hash of Permia, their bizarre sporting posters, the small town politics and the muddy roads.

If the characters' native Scheria goes relatively undescribed, it is because the book spends less time there. Similarly, the book begins with the assumption that Scheria is important (that's home after all); it is just "the Republic". By bringing in the detail of Permia, the latter becomes a real place too: a country that is a home, not a collection of faceless hostiles, lurking across the border. The presence of powers from other parts of the world - the urbane military officers of the Eastern Empire and the enigmatic mercenaries of the Aram Chantat - further reinforce the politics and the scale of the fencers' mission.

Characters, structure, world-building are all part of Sharps' appeal, but credit is also due to the central topic: swords. This is a book about fencing - more than that, it is a story that does its best to explore the line between sports and war, play and death. Sharps is a bloody book with every sort of battle from genteel foil fixtures to cavalry battles to brawls in the street. Each probes a little further into the causes and results of violence. Why do people do this? What does it do to them?

Our five fencers, as mentioned above, are an impressive lot, but they have to be - they've spent their lives toying with bladed objects. When their comfort zones are disrupted, the sheer deadliness of their sport comes crashing to the forefront. In Scheria, they duel with foils and blunted longswords, in Permia, they use lethal cutting blades called 'messers'. Ostensibly, the Permians' attachment to using such a brutal weapon portrays them as vicious barbarians - but Sharps is quick with the greater point: disguise them as you like, swords are made for killing. There's only so much you can play with a weapon, sooner or later, it will be called on for its ultimate purpose.

With all the flying steel of Sharps, a bit of swash and buckle is inevitable, yet Parker stays on message: life and death, politics and war - all riveting stuff, but they're never games. And for those that persist in taking these things lightly: Here they fight with messers. God help them.

Packed with sharp edges and provocative points, Sharps is the book that fantasy readers have been waiting for - fun, dangerous and very, very clever.
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The neighbouring kingdoms of Permia and Scheria fought one another for forty years before the Scherian general Carnufex, known in infamy as 'The Irrigator', flooded a Permian city and killed thousands. The war ended with an uneasy truce and the two nations maintaining a neutral zone between their kingdoms, containing the very territory they spilled so much blood over. To help restore relations and build on their mutual interest in the sport of swordplay, the Scherians dispatch a team of fencers to tour Permia. The fencers quickly learn that they may just be pawns in a larger game as factions in both kingdoms attempt to use their visit as an excuse to restart the war or to seize power in their own land. But no-one has reckoned on this particular team and their individual motivations and ambitions...

Sharps is the latest stand-alone novel from the enigmatic K.J. Parker. Parker is known for her fascination with medieval and renaissance weapons of war and basing entire narratives around them. Usually these narratives work on multiple levels, with both extensive literal use of the item in question and also its use as a metaphor. In Sharps Parker returns to her love of the sword and the sport of fencing, which she last studied in detail in her very first novel, the excellent Colours in the Steel, fifteen years ago. Sharps is a very different book, however, to both that novel and her normal output.

Most of Parker's books focus on a single character in detail, whilst Sharps has an ensemble cast. The four fencers are the main focus, along with their manager/trainer and their redoubtable political liaison officer. Parker also visits a whole bunch of bit-players on both sides of the border as different factions try to make use of the situation for their own ends. The result is a busier feel than most of her novels, which tend to be more intensely focused (sometimes to the point of claustrophobia). This works well, with each character set up and well-motivated in a concise fashion and then developed through the novel through their interactions with one another. Each character - the deadly war veteran Suidas, the manager Phrantzes, the foppish Giraut, the level-headed Addo (the son of the Irrigator) and noble Iseutz (the only female member of the team) - has his or her secrets, demons from the past or hidden motives, and Parker flips between them with verve and ease. Her trademark dry, black humour is also very much in evidence.

Sharps is an offbeat epic fantasy novel. Blood is spilled, thousands are killed and the fates of entire nations hang in the balance. Yet we see very little of it. The bulk of the book is set in the fencers' carriage (or one of them, as the have to change wagons several times due to various acts of mayhem) as they talk to one another, discuss the political situation, play chess and argue over various matters. Intermittently the novel feels like Waiting for Godot as rewritten by George R.R. Martin, with a dialogue polish by Terry Pratchett. The situation outside the carriage changes rapidly, with riots taking place and civil war threatening, but the four fencers only hear about it second-hand through confused reports, some of which may be misinformation fed to them deliberately. Neither the characters or we really know what's going on, and both will be baffled for much of the novel's length as increasingly random events take place, only being explained in the revelatory conclusion (after which a re-read of the novel with foreknowledge of the end could be an enlightening move).

Sharps (****½) is one of Parker's strongest novels to date. The characters are among her most memorable and fully-fleshed out, the structure is unusual but well-handled and allows for the politics, intrigue and backstabbing to be undertaken in a manner that does not descend into cliche. There's also a mordant wit which is deeply satisfying (especially when Parker directs it against some of the corniness of the fantasy genre). Parker even gives the book an ending which makes everything feel worthwhile, rather than pointless (a traditional weakness of some of her earlier books). The only problem is that the opening sections can feel very stilted until you get used to Parker's approach to this storyline. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
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on 28 October 2012
(review copied from my Goodreads account)

This is perhaps closer to a quest narrative than Parker's other works, but like those other works it's too original, too mature to be classed as genre fantasy. In many ways, closer to the tradition of Dostoevsky than of Tolkien. Refreshingly, you never have the sense that a certain character is bound to triumph because they're the hero, that the whole book is lurching towards a telegraphed outcome.

The central images here are the messer - an inelegant weapon incongruously used for sporting exhibition - and the flooding of a city, many years before the book's plot begins but half-echoed throughout it, in the fall of blood across a fencer's forehead, or the rush of a crowd into an empty street. These shapes are worked into the characters' psychologies as fully as Woolf's line on the canvas or Ballard's angular automobile geometry. That psychology is the central cog here: Parker offers us characters whose motivations are human - the most heroic characters have selfish sides, the most noxious have nobility in their ideals, and the whole is a convincing tapestry of the mechanics of morality.

The allegories are undisguised; the parallels with the realworld banking collapse and the bloody revolutions in the Arab Spring are bravely drawn. And while Parker's trilogies sometimes suffer from an anxious overflow of events towards the end, this standalone novel is as smartly engineered as a foldaway camping stove; as precise as the edge of a rapier.

"The point is, there's nothing, absolutely nothing that any of us wouldn't do, if we had to. If you say otherwise, you're kidding yourself. You can talk all day about right and wrong and good and evil; all it means is you haven't yet come up against the situation where you've got to do it, you haven't any choice." -- Suidas Deutzel
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on 29 November 2014
KJ Parker typically writes books specialising in the dissection and subsequent dismissal of love as a virtue. The Engineer Trilogy, The Folding Knife, The Hammer, The Fencer Trilogy, are all fine examples.

Sharps exists in a similar line, but it is subtly different. The story in Sharps is both lighter and, because of that, in its own way a lot more clever and enjoyable. As always, her characterisation and world building are exquisitely detailed. There's a now-familiar focus on complex intersecting power struggles. However the characters tend toward a manic good humour and there is less of the twisted oppression that hangs over some of Parker's other books. There is also no focus on a single lead character with a draconian grasp on morality. Instead we tend to settle on a man suffering from and ultimately rising beyond the effects of war in order to act in a way that is, arguably, morally superior. Even if he does this largely because it's the most awkward thing he could possibly do.

Of course, it wouldn't be a book by KJ Parker if she left it at that, but I will leave you to discover that for yourselves.

I am a great fan of KJ Parker. I think her one of the best contemporary authors. She never fails to develop rich characters while expanding my understanding of the world - whether through her treatment of numismatics in the Folding Knife or the principles of engineering in The Engineer Trilogy. However even I sometimes find her grim nihilism to be challenging. I suspect Sharps is the closest Parker will ever come to having a holiday. Enjoy it.
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on 24 July 2013
Sharps is the latest standalone novel from author K.J. Parker, a critically successful, but perhaps not as well-known commercially fantasy author. I'd never heard of Parker until I got a little deeper into the SFF community, where I started hearing the name repeated again and again from other major bloggers, like Justin Landon over at Staffer's Book Review and Jared Shurin at Pornokitsch. It seems like Parker is just on the verge of becoming an enormous success - an author that's always been a well-known secret within genre circles, but just not quite there when it comes to the average punter in the bookshop.

Parker writes what you could perhaps term "fantastical histories". The worlds Parker writes in are 100% fantasy creations, but they don't tend to involve much (if any) magic or fantastical creatures - rather, Parker uses these worlds to explore ideas and topics that are parallel with our own current affairs. The novels explore the fundamental workings of a range of topics, from politics to economics; engineering to individual power and the nature of good and evil. But although Parker explores these ideas on societal levels, s/he uses individuals to tell the stories. These may be tales with broad-ranging ideas, but the characters are at the centre. And going by Sharps, they're just damn good stories.

Sharps is the story of two countries: Scheria and Permia. They have long been at war, but for the first time in a rather bloody forty years a truce has finally been called. They are not at peace yet, though. Talks are in place and a diplomatic mission is sent to Permia by the Scherians. For both countries share one central interest - fencing. Scheria puts together a team of its best fencers to tour Permia, with the mission supposedly being to try and unite both countries with this shared interest. A force of goodwill. But things really are not quite that simple.

With Sharps, K.J. Parker takes a sometimes serious and often satirical look at warmongering, organised sporting events and the art of diplomacy. The novel follows almost exclusively the group of fencers sent into Permia, following the points of view of each one at different points. There is the most central of these, Giraut Bryennius, a young man who is forced at pain of death to go with the party into Permia. Addo Carnufex is the son of General Carnufex, Scheria's most renowned commander (and perhaps throughout the world), Iseutz Bringas - the only female member of the team, Jilem Phrantzes - a former champion and the team's administrator, and finally, Suidas Deutzel, the Scherian fencing champion - and a real scene-stealer throughout the novel.

Through the eyes of these central characters, we see the foreign country of Permia, and Parker very much limits us to seeing only what the characters do - a country where something isn't quite right. Nothing seems to go quite to plan and there is clearly more to their diplomatic mission than they are being told. Parker manages to create a tense atmosphere through this sense of just never knowing what's really going on. The novel twists and turns, Parker only ever showing us what s/he needs us to know, until everything becomes so convoluted and tangled up that it becomes difficult to see where it's going. But then, right in the final 50 pages, Parker unravels the knot in an ingenious piece of plot structuring, and everything becomes clear.

There were areas, particularly in the middle of the novel, where I struggled. Mainly this was through frustration at misunderstanding the situation, but Parker does have a knack for gauging the reader - the characters are always frustrated with you. What kept me reading was Parker's outstanding dialogue. Much of the novel's structure - it's worldbuilding, plotting, foreshadowing - all come from the dialogue. Parker shies away from copious description, and instead opts to allow the characters to do the telling. And it's hilarious. I haven't laughed so much at a novel since some of the older Discworld novels. It's biting and satirical, but always incredibly funny.

Sharps is like an medieval/early-modern roadtrip through a war-torn, primitive country, with (of all things) a sports team at the centre. It's not the easiest novel to read, and at times it can become quite dense (despite its average length) with worldbuilding and intrigue which doesn't always make sense until the bigger picture is revealed. But in that lies Parker's strength - intrigue. This is an author that is not afraid to write in a structure that only ever reveals what s/he wants you to know. It's a fun, satirical, darkly funny and at times, thought-provoking read - and I'd have to agree that it's a matter of time until K.J. Parker gets the recognition s/he deserves.
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As a huge reader, KJ Parker is an author I always make time for, the books have solid characters, wonderful plot lines and of course some magical twists that are as deft as a fencing match which is quite appropriate considering the manner of this tale. Whilst it does start off slow, the reader is given a wonderful introduction to the key players as they wend their merry way to the key point in the tale.

Add to this the fact that it's a rich tapestry of description and play which when added to sharp prose alongside solid dialogue all in makes this a cracking read for any fan of fantasy tales. Great stuff.
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on 1 November 2012
For me, the books from Parker are a hit and miss. I absolutely loved the Engineer trilogy, but I abandoned the first book of the Scavenger trilogy because I hated it. So it was with trepidation I picked up Sharps, and I'm really glad I did since I thoroughly enjoyed it. Interesting story, and as usual in all his books, brilliant dialogues and beautiful, elegant writing style. As a plus, it's actually not the first in a series, but a self contained fantasy book, a feat that few writers seem to be capable of these days!
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on 15 October 2012
I'm sure this is a god book. In fact, I'm hoping to be able to finish it, but I'm struggling with some of the worst kindle formatting I've come across. The whole book is presented in hanging paragraphs, and there is nothing to indicate where one scene ends and another begins.

I'm getting really sick of the way publishers treat their ebook customers. The quality of proofreading is almost universally dismal - and I'm not talking about self-published books, but those from the so-called 'big five' - with run-on sentences, missing quotation marks, erroneous paragraphing and so on. A paper book printed in the way I am expected to read this would be returned by booksellers, so why do publishers simply think they can slam out the ebook version without even glancing at how it appears in kindle software?

Sorry KJ - I love your books, but you need your agent to sort this out. I proofread my own books and they're better than this.
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on 17 August 2013
This is ok but nothing special.

This isn't a bad book but I expect better from Parker.

This is a simple story following a small group of characters with a background of more complex politics, that is pretty standard for the author but the book lacks the originality of his other novels.

This really feels like it should be a reissue of an older novel, one written before the author became successful and before they became really good. The fact that it isn't a reissue makes it hard to understand why it lacks the depth and sophistication of his normal novels and the characters are more forgettable, just bland stock characters.

This feels like an author just lazily churning out a novel, not caring about the quality.

A lazy novel by Parker is still better than many authors on their best day but not good enough to care about.
You would be better off re-reading some of his earlier books instead.
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on 13 November 2016
First KJ Parker I've read.
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