Sharps is the first Parker novel I’ve read (I have read a short story or two previously) and I’m surprised it’s been so long with her* impressively positive reputation among my fellow blogger/reviewers. This of course led to me having quite high expectations for this book. The result – it’s complicated. My initial reaction and one that I held throughout reading is that it’s a good book, a really good book, but I still was expecting something…more. However in retrospect, I only become more and more impressed with what Parker does with Sharps. Parker’s writing is polished, it’s clearly the work of seasoned writer and lacks any obvious weaknesses. Parker’s writing is subtle and complex, and my appreciation of this only improves with time.
Parker builds well-rounded, flawed and realistic characters. Read pretty much any review of Parker’s writing and it gets discussed, so I’m not going to go beat a dead horse on this one. But I do want to discuss a very fine line that Parker walks in dealing with the points of view in Sharps. As the plot develops and our band of wayward fencers continues along a journey in which nothing seems to go as planned, a sense builds that there is something more going on. It’s clear from the very beginning that there is more than meets the eye, though exactly what that is remains a mystery. And while some will call it a spoiler, I’ll go ahead and say it – at least one of those fencers knows what’s going and has plans that go well beyond fencing. Only we don’t know who or what until pretty much the moment of the big reveal (and we even get a red herring or two along the way). And here’s the fine-line – we see points of view from all of the characters throughout the book in a limited third person perspective – a perspective where we get into the heads of the characters and come to ‘know’ them pretty well. Yet the mystery remains. I’ll be honest, I don’t know how Parker pulled it off, and sometimes I’m not sure she does. But in retrospect, even though I sometimes wonder if she really pulled it off or not, I can’t help but admit it was handled masterfully.
Parker has a fair bit of fun in other ways with Sharps – there is a nice little bit of subversion of the standard barbarians of fantasy, she has some interesting things to say on the role of sports in contemporary society, draws some rather sharp parallels with some the on-going financial and political struggles in our own world, and throughout there is a running conversation between the words on the page about the motivations and consequences of violence at scales ranging from conflict between to individuals all the way up to wars between nations. It’s not didactic, but it’s not exactly subtle either and it sure makes it look like she’s a fairly bitter cynic.
Parker has gained a very good reputation for her brand of dark, gritty, grim-dark fantasy (or whatever term you choose to call it), and from what I see in Sharps, it’s a well-earned reputation. Sharps is a book of subtly, nuance and rather fun adventure that is masterfully executed. And it only gets better the more you think about it. While it’s the first book I’ve read by Parker, it most certainly won’t be the last. Any fan of fantasy that is looking for more than the traditional absolutely needs to be reading her work.