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The Two of Swords: Volume One by K. J.…
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The Two of Swords: Volume One (edition 2017)

by K. J. Parker (Author)

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443389,750 (4)1
Member:misura
Title:The Two of Swords: Volume One
Authors:K. J. Parker (Author)
Info:Orbit (2017), 496 pages
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The Two of Swords: Volume One by K. J. Parker

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She fidgeted with her glass. "But it all came to nothing anyway," she said. "There was a stalemate before the battle; there's the same stalemate now. Nothing's changed at all, except a lot of men were killed, and you got your promotion."
---

It's rare for me to rate a book with 4 or 5 stars and consciously choose to not read the sequel. The Two of Swords is a really good book, so I have to give it the 4 stars the book deserves. But it's also an unrelentingly dark and dismal book. However well a character is doing, soon enough their luck will turn and everything they have ever loved and cared about will crumble beneath their feet. Reading said crumbling again and again gets really depressing after a while.

The Two of Swords is about war. Specifically, a massive war between the Eastern and Western empires. Perhaps to give the conflict a more global feel, the book is divided into eight perspectives. Many fantasy novels employ multiple perspectives, but they usually switch back and forth between them. In The Two of Swords, when a character's perspective ends, it's over. The character may show up in a later character's section, but he won't ever become the narrator again. As a result, the book has the feeling of many stories stopping suddenly in the middle, without resolution.

Still, Parker is good at what he does. Despite the start-and-stop feel, The Two of Swords proceeds at a brisk pace. Parker wisely starts us off with an inoffensively familiar perspective: the talented farm boy whose superlative skills will be Important and set him apart from the others as one who is destined for greatness and renown. By the end of the book, Farm Boy is a distant memory as we try to juggle the different alliances, secret societies, and warring countries in our heads (a map, that old fantasy staple, would not be amiss here). The result is a bizarre patchwork quilt of a war and world that are refreshingly different and brilliantly developed. The Two of Swords is a really, really good book.

And I'm not reading the sequel.

The Two of Swords reminds me strongly of Joe Abercrombie's First Law series. Like Abercrombie, Parker isn't afraid to plunge his characters into the most despairing and desperate of situations and then let them and their loved ones die horribly. Like Abercrombie, Parker portrays war as a grim, often confusing mess of murder and mayhem in which many die for reasons no one, not even the generals, are entirely clear on. Many sections of The Two of Swords brought to mind Abercrombie's The Heroes. But what redeems Abercrombie is the humor of his books. Even at the worst of times, his books are always funny. The humor lightens the oppressive darkness and makes the reading experience entertaining without losing sight of the fact that a lot of awful things are happening on the page. The Two of Swords isn't without humor, but when things get grim, they get unbearably grim without any humor or lightness to alleviate the situation.

If you like dark books (and I mean dark; China Mieville is more cheerful), then The Two of Swords is a genuinely great book that's probably going to really interesting places in the sequel. But it's too dark for me. ( )
  miri12 | May 31, 2019 |
My next step with K.J. Parker should have been to continue the Engineer Trilogy, but it just so happened that I had time to kill on the evening I bought this book, and couldn’t resist starting it. In fact, Parker’s novels all seem to take place in the same world, so it didn’t even feel like straying. The Two of Swords has only confirmed my admiration for him as a writer. I’d go so far as to say I love his books. They’re knotty, cynical, pragmatic fantasy without a hint of magic, and the general flavour is what you might get if Machiavelli settled down to write an alternate-universe version of the Byzantine Empire. Stuffed full of double-bluffs and double-agents, this series takes us into the heart of a long-lasting war, spurred on by the personal enmity between the opposing generals – who also happen to be brothers. Two brothers; two armies; two empires; and one secret international fraternity, who may not be as neutral as they’ve always claimed to be…

For the full review, please see my blog:
https://theidlewoman.net/2018/04/24/the-two-of-swords-k-j-parker/ ( )
1 vote TheIdleWoman | Apr 24, 2018 |
This book in particular, and K. J. Parker’s SF in general, reminds me of a quote by Yevgeny Zamyatin:

“It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment.”

Zamyatin was referring to the deadening effects of Stalinist oppression on the arts but I think his quote can apply to bureaucratic and warring societies like ours as well. Go and apply for a bank loan or talk to a lawyer about an insurance claim and experience some treasured moments with the dead-alive.

Despite being fortunate enough to be married with kids and have enough close friends in my life, I like solitude. I've always identified with Graham Greene's protagonists, as well as those appearing in many of Haruki Murakami's stories. Maybe that’s why I'll probably never outgrow the teenage thing (SF, AOR music, dabbling in programming, rugby, etc.).

Anyway, veering slightly off topic, I realised recently that there isn't enough time left to probably read all the books I've ever wanted to read, which struck me as a bit sad. Imagine how you would feel when you got to the last page of the last remaining book which you wanted to read. It is a bit like money. It might seem to be a good idea to run out of it just as you get to the point of dying but it is probably more sensible to still have some left when arriving at that destination.

That is why love both Montaigne and now K. J. Parker: Montaigne in his essays (a genre he is credited with having invented), he seems to have covered the whole of human subjective experience and emotion, questioning and reflecting on everything from various perspectives; K.J. Parker is able to that with SF. His SFional-Weltanschauung reads like a never ending essay. We can think nowadays that even Shakespeare was indebted to Montaigne, most obviously in “The Tempest”. One little detail is that at during the period of Renaissance humanism, when the orthodox view was that man is the measure of all things, he asked whether his cat might not be playing with him as much as he plays with his cat. His radical scepticism paved the way for much of the scientific and philosophical progress of following centuries. Moreover, his writings always suggest a thoroughly reasonable and pleasant person. The same happens with K.J. Parker regarding the way he perceives the way society, and war in particular, works (or should work I should say). I have just finished reading "The Two of Swords". It is one of the most honest and insightful books on war, and leaves the reader in no doubt as to the dreadful waste and utter stupidity of war. Politicians, officers, you name it, are very much like the rest of us. They fail because we fail and we fail because success is not possible. No system, economic, social or political can be designed which is human-proof. The selfish urges within us will emerge in our actions and words corrupting whatever beautiful structures we create for national and international order. The best we can do is seek to transform ourselves and those around us into kinder, gentler versions of ourselves. This is a struggle that never ends and begins anew every time a new child is born. Success is only ever temporary and only ever a mitigation not a total victory. For all that it is an effort worth making but utopian dreams of a New Jerusalem are more of a hindrance than a help along the way. But it's one thing to say war is stupid, another thing is to say it's futile. It’s such a facile, throwaway line. Of course war is terrible, and futility is certainly a frequent aspect. It’s like saying that murder is bad, and claiming some moral superiority because you’ve said it. But irrespective of the claims of pacifists, it takes only one side to start a war. It’s just that a war with only one side is more commonly called a genocide. So rather than take a simplistic, clean view, one that protects your own conscience at the (possible) expense of other people’s lives, why not instead try to understand that war is deeply complex.

Certainly the political machinations of the European Powers were not sufficient reason to fight a war. The First World War was the archetypal war of futility. And the Crusades, and the Alexandrian Campaigns, and Vietnam, and Iraq, and a host of other wars can also be properly categorised as futile. But the Second World War was not, nor the response to the Bosnian Conflict, nor the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In almost all belligerence, the real causes are hidden behind a veil of patriotism, religion or politics. These are the methods by which warmongering leaders get their populations to suspend their usual moral code. If a war is fought for any of these reasons, it is almost certainly futile. But if it is fought to protect people from these things, it might be far from futile. The nation state is not unlike feudal society like the one Parker depicts, with the only difference being is that we elect our kings and nobles now. The middle class and the poor for the most part enforce their will all under the guise of democracy, socialism, communism or theocracy. The ruling class were prepared to sacrifice some of their own young on the altar of conquest during the WWI. It’ no wonder then that they showed such utter contempt for the lives of the working class as they flung them into the slaughter in their countless thousands. And again in many conflicts since where the ruling and officer class remained well away from the butchery as the working class did their bloody work for them.

Parker has written a major essay in the form of fiction, the best kind there is. And can I even call it SF of the fantasy kind. There’s no better speculative fiction/science fiction/fantasy writer at the moment. What a delicious way to wrap things up 2017-wise. No other SF writer could put into words and philosophise at the same time the question “on how humanity can ever achieve the peace between people”, or “is our nature itself the well spring of conflict?”. If a large country makes a claim and can seize some land or other by little effort, e.g., Ancient Rome wrt Israel, the lot of the many can be said to be improved, while the lot of a few would be reduced. But doesn't all change adversely affect a few? What drives the change, real material gain overall, or the satiation of a covetous and acquisitive nature? Either way it's always the prospect of the future that capture my SFional imagination. Is the present really so bad? Perhaps we need to learn to savour what we have in the present rather than what we could have in the future. Is it our inadequacy, that drives us to gamble all on gaining something more? And what is our inadequacy other than a mistaken belief that we are in some way inadequate? Perhaps that is the pivot point, believing that we are acceptable and loved?

The way the bit of a scrap between Forza and Senza in the middle of the desert is narrated ("show-don't-tell" in play) is worth by itself the price of having this three huge tomes on my bookshelf.

NB: Read the three volumes published late 2017.

SF = Speculative Fiction. ( )
1 vote antao | Dec 22, 2017 |
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The epic opening volume in The Two of Swords trilogy by World Fantasy Award-winning author K.J. Parker."Why are we fighting this war? Because evil must be resisted, and sooner or later there comes a time when men of principle have to make a stand. Because war is good for business and it's better to die on our feet than live on our knees. Because they started it. But at this stage in the proceedings," he added, with a slightly lop-sided grin, "mostly from force of habit." A soldier with a gift for archery. A woman who kills without care. Two brothers, both unbeatable generals, now fighting for opposing armies. No-one in the vast and once glorious United Empire remains untouched by the rift between East and West, and the war has been fought for as long as anyone can remember. Some still survive who know how it was started, but no-one knows how it will end. The Two of Swords is the story of a war on a grand scale, told through the eyes of its soldiers, politicians, victims and heroes.… (more)

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