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Triple-walled Perimadeia is one of the richest city-states in the world, famed for its teeming markets and its impregnable defences. After decades of trying fruitlessly to take the city, one of the plains tribes comes up with an ingenious idea: send one of their own to get a job in the city arsenal and learn its secrets from the inside.

Even as an ambitious young chieftain's son plans the most audacious siege in history, life in the city goes on. Bardas Loredan, a former soldier, now works as a defence advocate. In the courts of Perimadeia cases are settled through swordplay and Bardas is very good at what he does...until a vengeful young woman hires the city's Patriarch to curse him.

Colours in the Steel was originally published in 1998 and was the debut novel by the enigmatic K.J. Parker. It's also the first in The Fencer Trilogy, although it also works quite well as a stand-alone book. It can be best described as a sort-of anti-epic fantasy. The trappings of much of the subgenre are present: swordfights, large armies, sieges, military manoeuvres, magic (more or less) and prophecies (kind of). However, most of this is window-dressing, with the focus being on Bardas Loredan and his troubled family life, and on young Temrai, the chieftain's son and spy who ends up plotting the genocide of a city he actually quite likes.

As with Parker's later books, Colours in the Steel has a cynical vein of black humour running through it. There are musings on the futility of revenge, the pointlessness of warfare and the quite insane meanderings of the military bureaucracy (there's more than a whiff of WWI incompetence to the leaders of Perimadeia and their military judgement during the siege). There's no glorification of warfare, with both sides suffering heavy losses and wondering if it's all worth it. However, there is also a distinct love of military hardware. In fact, Parker devotes pages to how swords are forged, how siege engines work and are built and on the best ways of defending a city under siege from a superior enemy. Colours in the Steel belies the tendency of much of epic fantasy to be pure escapism, instead educating the reader on matters mechanical and mathematical more effectively than most science fiction novels. Sometimes the deviations onto the best way to make a trebuchet work go on for a bit too long, but Parker's writing skill is enough to keep even the most detailed descriptions of gears and counterweights interesting.

Long-term readers of Parker will know that she(?) has little truck with gratuitous worldbuilding. There is no map and the legal system of Perimadeia seems to have been created more for dramatic effect than any desire to create something that would work on a practical level. There is no 'magic system' either, with the city's Patriarch cheerfully acknowledging that he has no idea about how magic (the Principal, which actually seems more like some kind of limited prophetic or telepathic ability) works. What does work quite well is the subplot where the Patriarch and his best friend try to lift the curse the Patriach put on Bardas (without understanding what was going on), only to find other forces getting involved. Parker doesn't spell out what's going on with this 'magical' plot and it's left to the reader to piece together what it all means, which shows respect for the reader's intelligence.

The book's biggest success is in its characterisation, although it has to be said that Bardas himself is painted a little too straightforwardly. Those who are familiar with the whole trilogy (particularly his actions in the second novel, The Belly of the Bow) will be aware that there are good reasons for this, but newcomers may find Bardas a little too obvious as a protagonist. However, the rest of the cast are painted well, particularly Patriarch Alexius and his friend Gannadius who spend a lot of the book as outside observers and commentators on what's going on before having to get involved. Bardas's brother, Gorgas, is also a fascinating and contradicted character. Whilst definitely being a nasty piece of work, he also has his own sense of honour and fair play. He doesn't play much of a role in this novel, but is set up well for the sequel.

Colours in the Steel (****½) is a striking debut novel. It has the requisite amounts of well-depicted carnage and military activity for an epic fantasy, but it's focus is much more on the characters, their motivations and the realisations they lead to. The book is also darkly funny. It's an excellent example of an epic fantasy novel that uses the tropes and limitations of the genre to say something a bit more interesting than normal. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
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on 11 June 1999
Never having heard of the author, I bought this on impulse (maybe the magic working its quirky effect on me? - no headaches though!) and Joy! - something refreshingly different! Here is an author who is obviously intimately familiar with law, fencing, medieval ballistics and human interaction. I don't know the gender of the author, but the style 'feels' distinctly feminine - no I don't mean Barbara Cartland, more like Barbara Wood or Sheri Tepper - but with all the extra fine detail that sets it apart. Add to this a wry, self-depracating humour and a magical theme that runs through as a mostly unobserved undercurrent and you have a book that almost sets its own genre. I'm still trying to work out who really is the magician in all this.... maybe the next book will reveal more? Oh, I sincerely hope it fulfils the promise of this one - rarely have I read such a wonderful book, especially a debut novel..... more please! I can't recommend this highly enough.
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on 12 October 2000
Why do I give colours in the steel only three stars if I thought it was a "great book." The problem is, you read this book. You like Parker's style, his attention to detail and some of the concepts he's developing. After that you go out and buy the sequels and you are utterly crushed - the story just doesn't go anywhere, the ending of the third book is a cop out and the whole thing leaves a bad taste in your mouth. So if you have the will power to read the first part of a trilogy and leave the rest, go for it, otherwise you're better off elsewhere.
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on 19 December 2000
I agree with the review by the other reader. This book is brilliant. It grips from the word go and is a real through to early morning read. But the sequels are a poor relation and not worthy of mention. Buy this and read it is as if it were a single tome - and enjoy it!
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on 27 November 1998
Having been reading the fantasy genre for many years, I have become jaded with the stock formulaic swords and sorcery epics that seem to the norm these days. Thus, have bought the book on a whim, without any preconceptions, it was a delight to find a consistent universe, character driven, yet with a refreshing twist to it. The main protaganist is a lawyer, yet in this world, law is decided by the art of fencing - to the death for serious cases, to first blood for civil matters - divorce and so on. The background to this is that of the internal and external politics of the city-state in which it is set.
I cannot promise huge swashbuckling magical duels, yet magic is a part of this world, but in a subtle way, that leaves you wondering, rather than the mechanistic science of magic derived from role-playing spinoffs. (I must admit, they *are* however one of my weaknesses as a sub-genre!)
However, the plot is riveting - the main character is a fencer-at-law, and a semi-disgraced ex-soldier. Now retired from active practise, he teaches, and attracts a pupil with a hidden agenda. He is also called upon to lead the city militia. As a parallel plot, a new leader for the plain tribesmen arises, and, makes a trek to the city, to learn the ways of technology. This, he applies to the art of war, with ominous consequences...
This book was, in short, a very good read, and has had me scouring the net for details of the second book promised in the series. Oddly unhyped, partly due to the unsensational nature of the story, it stands head and shoulders above its current rivals, and is as engaging as early Brooks, or even, oddly, reminding me of Snow Crash, by Stephenson. Buy it and read it.
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on 14 August 2013
Couldn't put it down. The research into old techniques - in all three books - make for a fascinating story. It's chief virtue, however, is its excellent character - unusual, expertly drawn and you absolutely have to know what comes next. It's similar but perhaps not as virtuoso as Game of Thrones, but has less chunks of unedited text (I skipped over pages at a time of GoT, sorry to say), which makes for a very tight, profoundly enjoyable and highly imaginative tale. I bought all three - all excellent.
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on 28 September 2014
Absolutely loved The Folding Knife, one of my favourite books, but this is much harder to get into.

Characters are less interesting, and the story is meandering. Perhaps he/she was trying to pad out to three books - doubt I'll manage to get there
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on 6 March 2001
I enjoyed this book: it was well-written and entertaining. The information Parker provides (throughout the trilogy) on weapons / weapons-making is fascinating, and his characters and world are intriguing.
I looked forward to the sequels, but I was very disappointed in "The Belly of the Bow" and "The Proof House": without wanting to ruin the story for those who are still interested, the trilogy gets increasingly violent and depressing as it progresses, so that by the time I started the 3rd book I was forcing myself to read, skimming just so I could see how it ended. And by the time I finished it, I was wishing I had never heard of the books in the first place...
I was very positive about the first book, it was a great beginning, but honestly cannot recommend it now that I know where it leads.
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on 4 April 2008
As a number of other reviewers have mentioned, this is an enjoyable book with some quite likeable characters. As a fencer myself, the discussion and description of the fencing was quite interesting.

The real strength is that as the plot develops you can feel real possibilities opening up for where the story might lead. Sadly the next two in the trilogy are REALLY not very good and do not expand on these, particularly the third one. So buy this and read it, just don't bother with the other two.
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on 15 October 2000
This was the only book I have bought without being sure that I could get the next in the series. Am I ever glad that I did! By the end of the first chapter I was hooked. It is such a new idea, completely unique.The medieval feel, with an almost modern twist was Grade A material. I wasn't able to put it down. I read the whole book in one day and as soon as I finished I went online to get The Belly of the Bow. Smashing series. Can't wait for a new one!
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