Review: The Folding Knife

Posted: June 8, 2010 by in Books that are Mediocre (3/5 single_star) Meta: K.J. Parker, Fantasy

With luck, intellect, and an innate skill with strategy on his side, Basso is a powerhouse of ambition. His goal: to take everything he can and control the rest. Just because he can.

Well, at least that’s what he’ll tell you. But, as Basso would say, there’s always another reason.

Set in the ancient Rome-like city of the Vesani Republic, THE FOLDING KNIFE (Amazon) follows the life of Bassianus Severus, First Citizen, from the odd circumstances surrounding his birth, to his meteoric rise in the banking industry, to becoming the elected leader of the most civilized city of the known world. It’s a story of politics and business, of love and hate–and how little it takes for one to become the other. But mostly it’s about Basso, and no matter how great a man becomes, and how pure his intentions are, when everything finally crashes the sound can be deafening.

Parker has a big story to tell and likes telling it quickly; for example, the first forty years are covered in three chapters. Then it’s during the events following the author’s engaging set-up that we can finally begin to unfold the motivations and back story. You have to be patient, because despite the story’s quick pace, Parker seems to enjoy telling the important bits out of order, so you won’t often understand the ‘why’ until later. As you read it’s hard to say exactly where the story is headed, as it dashes this way and that, or takes the occasional turn. (Basso himself would approve of this method, since he takes great pride in the bait-and-switch tactics he uses on his political and business rivals.)

However, readers will be fine with swiftly moving from scene to scene because Basso is such an interesting character. It’s easy to be caught up in the details surrounding his relationships and the choices he makes. He’s a likable mixture of self-interest and soft-heartedness who will do what’s ugly for sake of what’s right, and is unapologetically aware of the kind of person he is. The people around him are as interesting as he is, such as the clever General Aelius and Basso’s earnest nephew Bassano.

Parker’s writing is fluid, fun, and fast-paced, the dialogue between the characters engaging and hilariously candid. The use of modern lingo, however, is oddly incongruous with the novel’s era of carriages and swords, and it took me a couple of chapters to sync with the prose’s flow. But once I did, the story flew by.

Easily the best part of the book is Parker’s droll sense of humor, occasionally bordering on the downright silly. Basso and company see situations for how ridiculous they really are, which makes what could have been a too-serious story instead easy reading because of the way they poke fun at themselves and the world around them.

The majority of the novel takes place in the city of the Vesani Republic, but we also learn about the surrounding nations, their customs, and the eccentricities of their peoples. The author attempts to build a world of complexity, but overreaches so the world-building lacks focus. And while humor is great for dialogue, the frequently quirky descriptions of other nations makes it hard to give them significance when the author is inconsistent about whether we should take them seriously or not.

Is THE FOLDING KNIFE worth reading? Sure, on a Sunday afternoon when you're in the mood to enjoy fun to read prose and likable characters.

Parker spends 400 pages setting us up for… something. I’m not really sure what. As the novel progresses, it gets bogged down in the business, political, and wartime maneuverings. Where the climax should be are events we don’t get to witness directly except through Bassano’s idiosyncratic correspondence. After spending so long in the day-to-day goings on surrounding Basso, this jumbled summary of the culmination of events doesn’t match the rest of the novel and takes the reader painfully out of the story. By the end, the plot completely disintegrates, with characters doing the inexplicable, Parker’s attempts at being philosphical falling flat, and the story resolves into a wandering meaninglessness.

Is THE FOLDING KNIFE worth reading? Sure, on a Sunday afternoon when you’re in the mood to enjoy fun to read prose and likable characters… but at the same time don’t want to think too hard about the point of the story.

  • Recommended Age: 16+ since most of the business talk would get tedious and confusing
  • Language: Little worth mentioning
  • Violence: A handful of briefly detailed scenes, but the majority of it is glossed over
  • Sex: One brief scene with few details, the rest is implied


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