The Folding Knife is a stand alone novel by K. J. Parker, although it is supposed to be set in the same world as some of the author’s other works. K. J. Parker has also written the Engineer trilogy, the Fencer trilogy, the Scavenger trilogy, The Company, and The Hammer (which just came out earlier this month). He/she is also known for his/her mysterious identity, as there is very little information about the author and speculation on just who he/she may be runs rampant on the Internet.
The Folding Knife is the story of Basso, the First Citizen of the Vesani Republic. The prologue shows a brief glimpse into the tragic turn Basso’s life takes before starting with his childhood and proceeding linearly from there. It shows some of his family life, his fierce devotion to his sister and his eventual betrothal set up for political reasons. Very little time is actually spent on his younger years, though, and it quickly moves to his adulthood.
After his marriage, Basso’s father gifts him with one million shares in his bank and makes him to go to work there, where Basso is trained by the chief clerk Antigonus. Once the second week of Basso’s career is over, Antigonus tells him he’s not doing as well as he thinks he is and poses the question of whether he really wants to become competent or just wants to coast along. Basso makes the decision to really learn how to manage the bank, resulting in harder work than he’d ever anticipated as it seems nearly impossible to please Antigonus. Due to his mentor, Basso learns all areas of banking – from every little detail about the workings of the bank to how keeping attuned to political situations can be advantageous. Eventually, Antigonus tells Basso he’s ready to work without his aid.
With a combination of brilliance and luck, Basso excels at his banking career and is eventually voted into the position of First Citizen like his father before him. Unlike his father, he tends to do everything right and the Vesani Republic flourishes because of him – but being successful merely most of the time is not enough.
The Folding Knife was my first K. J. Parker novel, but I certainly don’t intend for it to be my last. It was a wonderful combination of clever and easy to read with some great dialogue. In some ways, it reminded me of a grimmer version of Megan Whalen Turner’s books, although I’m a little hesitant to say that since the characters are not as likable so it’s not a good comparison in every way. The reason it did remind me of her books was because of the way it was a made-up historical setting reminiscent of a culture from world history as well as the way it was told – in a straightforward manner with lots of well-written dialogue but without a lot of narrative embellishment on what was happening. It’s smart and engaging with a main character who stays one step ahead of everyone else, although the fact that not everything goes right for this character is apparent from the first three pages.
Personally, I didn’t find Basso at all unlikable since he was such an interesting personality, although some may find him more difficult to like. He does do some despicable things, and the worst act he commits in the book is rather horrific. As First Citizen of the Vesani Republic, he does tend to be pragmatic and his actions benefit himself – it’s just a happy consequence that they also benefit everyone else. He does seem to truly care about one or two people, but they are few and far between; he’s far more inclined to be logical than emotional. There’s really only the one pivotal moment where he ever lets his feelings rule over his better judgment; any other time I can recall him being upset it’s much more minor. He’s brilliant, but I also really liked that he had to work to become so competent. In the beginning, he was an ignorant young man who had to be taught new ways of looking at the world around him and how to use politics to his advantage. Most of his success seems to be a combination of genius and luck. Oh, and the fact that he is filthy rich doesn’t hurt either:
“The Sclerians are buying nomismata, melting them down and minting them into drachmas. It’s insane. If you cut the nomisma by three points, it’d be like writing the Sclerians a draft for half the reserves in the Treasury. No, what we ought to be doing is putting more gold in, not taking it out.” Then, when they scowled at him, he went on, “In fact, let’s do that. We’ll purify by one point, up to ninety-eight, and see what happens.”
They gave him a hard time over that, but he had the authority, and wouldn’t let them leave the room until they’d all signed the order, which was sent to the Mint for immediate action.
(“Why?” Sentio demanded later.
“Because they got on my nerves,” Basso replied. “Besides, it’s the right thing to do, especially now. It shows we’ve got confidence in the economy, in spite of our recent spot of bother. It’s all right,” he added, ” the Bank’s got enough cash in hand to cover the immediate shortfall.”
Sentio shook his head. “Must be nice,” he said, ” to be so rich you can personally guarantee something like this out of your own pocket.”
“Yes,” Basso said. “It is. It means I can indulge myself in little fits of temper without ruining the economy of the Republic.”) [pp. 151]
There are also some excellent secondary characters – Basso’s nephew, who wants to be just like his uncle; Antigonus, the slave and banking genius who taught Basso all about economics and more; and Aelius, the foreign soldier Basso trusts to head his military schemes (who often ends up being honored in humorous ways that he never really wanted). Those hoping for some strong female characters may be disappointed. That is not to say there are no women, but they are mostly not as well-developed as the others who were mentioned. Basso’s sister is mainly defined by her hatred for her brother, and Cilia (Basso’s wife from his arranged marriage) was not at all sympathetic plus she didn’t seem particularly bright. The exception to the rule for female characters is Melsuntha, Basso’s social secretary who does appear very reliable and intelligent.
On the subject of expectations going in to this novel – it is labeled as fantasy but there is no magic at all. This book is set in a made-up world and is fantasy in that respect, but if there were no place names or clearly fictional rulers it could almost be historical fiction.
My only real complaint about this book is the ending, which was rushed and not very satisfying after all the buildup. This “one mistake” that lead to Basso’s downfall was referenced from the very beginning as the scene Basso replays in his mind every time he closes his eyes, but it didn’t seem as closely connected to the conclusion as I would have expected. I think it would have worked better as the story of Basso’s life and accomplishments instead of starting with knowledge of the end result. That’s not to say I think the ending should have been any happier since the tragic downfall of a great man who had achieved so much is certainly a fitting place to end up. What bothered me about it was that it kept going back to this one moment in his life that Basso dwells on, and I’m not convinced it really was the major cause of what happened at the end. It contributed to how events played out because of where he ended up and the situations he was in, but it seemed to me that ultimately it had more to do with a combination of factors, including Basso’s own mistakes – just not that particular one he keeps dwelling on. A second reading may help me figure out if this opinion is justified, but after reading it once I think this emphasis on his one moment that changed everything doesn’t quite fit with all that happened.
Aside from that, The Folding Knife is a very compelling story about one man’s rise to power and brilliant accomplishments before disaster strikes. The political and economic machinations are surprisingly fascinating, particularly with the easygoing dialogue tinged with humor.
My Rating: 8.5/10 (Writing about this made me realize I liked it much more than I initially thought and it probably should have been higher on my top 10 list. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes writing about a book for me to really realize the full extent of how much I liked/disliked it.)
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.
Question for K. J. Parker fans: Now that I’ve read and enjoyed The Folding Knife, what do you think is the next book or series by Parker I should read? There are so many books to get caught up on that I don’t even know where to start!