One of the very first martial arts I developed an interest in was fencing. I remember watching the 1993 Disney version The Three Musketeers, starring a very young Chris O’Donnell and Kiefer Sutherland, and absolutely adoring the action depicted onscreen: sword-blades flashing quicksilver-bright as thrusts and counter-thrusts were delivered, all mingled with witty retorts and daring escapes. To be sure, a lot of the action wasn’t entirely period-accurate (the movie owes a lot to Hong Kong action movies in terms of visuals), but it was enough to lead me to Dumas’ original text, which I read over and over again throughout high school – usually when I ought to have been reading things like The Catcher in the Rye (I cannot count the number of times I’ve imagined Athos slapping Holden across the mouth for being too whiny). I still go back to read the novel every so often, revisiting my favorite moments and scenes when I need some quick mental decompression.
Perhaps as a result of the prevalence of The Three Musketeers in all its forms, it’s been difficult not to think of it when one reads about fencing in books, or sees it in movies. It’s also very likely that a lot of writers have Dumas’ book at some point in time, and so find themselves influenced by it. However, a good writer who writes about fencing will do his or her level best to avoid copying Dumas’ work or characters. Not all succeed, of course, but those who do are incredibly fun to read. A personal favorite of mine is Arturo Pérez-Reverte, who wrote (and is still writing) the Captain Alatriste series of novels, set in Spain at more or less the same time as The Three Musketeers. Captain Alatriste is not, however, merely a copy of The Three Musketeers set in Spain, mostly because it is a far darker, far grittier rendering of the period – a testament to the fact that Pérez-Reverte was a war correspondent for a while before settling down to become a novelist.
Since I discovered Pérez-Reverte’s books, however, I stopped finding interesting fencing novels. I suspect that it mostly had to do with the increase in popularity of wuxia films and the increased interest in Eastern martial arts. I suspect this has to do with the seeming “impracticality” of fencing, which, given how it’s portrayed in the movies, comes as no surprise, albeit unfortunate.
When I stumbled across K.J. Parker’s novel Sharps, however, I was more than happy to pick it up. Parker has quite the reputation as a capital novelist, and though I hadn’t read any of her/his books (no one knows Parker’s gender; s/he is pulling something of a Salinger at the moment), I viewed Sharps as an opportunity to experience her/his writing before dedicating myself to her/his longer works like The Fencer Trilogy (more fencing, yay!) and The Engineer Trilogy.
Fortunately, Sharps has proven to be quite the fun read, and as unlike The Three Musketeers as a fencing novel can get. This, it must be said, is a very, very good thing.
One thing one must remember about The Three Musketeers is that it’s a rather light-hearted story – in particular if one hasn’t quite read the novel and has focused only on the first half of the novel, dealing with the theft and recovery of Queen Anne’s necklace. I suppose the reason why this part get portrayed in film so often is because it has romance, action, intrigue, and, to a degree, a happy ending that separates it from the darker, more depressing content of the second half of the novel.
This is not the case in Sharps. To be sure, there are certain parallels, but a lot of Sharps – an overwhelming lot of it – is very different from The Three Musketeers, beginning with the characters. At the core of the novel is a group of five characters: Suidas Deutzel, a three-time fencing champion; Aduluscentulus “Addo” Carnufex, the son of an important military general; Iseutz Bringas, the daughter of minor nobility; Giraut Bryennius, a banker’s son; and Jilem Phrantzes, a former fencing champion and long since retired from the scene. They form the “national team” of their home country, Scheria, and are being sent on to the neighboring country of Permia (which was once at war with Scheria) as part of a “peace mission” involving matches between Scheria’s best fencers and Permia’s best, since everyone in Permia is crazy about Scherian fencing.
On the surface, all of this makes sense, and doesn’t seem suspicious in the least. But as the story progresses, it becomes very obvious that something’s going on underfoot, and nothing – and no one – is quite what it seems, or who he or she says they are.
That’s one of the interesting things about this novel: the characters are all unreliable narrators. The narrative style of the novel is mostly in third-person limited, and it does a lot of jumping around amongst the characters, giving the protagonists, and a few of the supporting characters, a chance to speak up. Despite this, however, it’s difficult to figure out who is telling the truth and who isn’t, because for the most part they’re lying not only to the reader, but to themselves, as well. There are also a lot of moments wherein the reader is aware of the narrator’s gender, but cannot identify who the narrator is, precisely, until at some later point in the novel when everything begins to come together and all the clues finally begin to make sense.
The characters themselves are interesting, for the most part – especially since none of them want to be on the team in the first place, except for Iseutz. The beginning of the novel primarily concerns itself with explaining how certain members got onto the team in the first place: Suidas was extremely broke and needed the money; Giraut killed a Senator and joined in order to avoid jail and execution; and Phrantzes was blackmailed into it by having his properties and his wife seized, with the former going to the bank, and the latter to a convent.
Another interesting thing is that the characters are far from the most normal. Right from the get-go, the reader will be drawn to Suidas: a former soldier and extremely talented fencer, who has been given the dubious honor of being team captain. The thing about Suidas, though, is that he isn’t quite right in the head: a spectacularly traumatic incident during the previous war against Permia has left him with some very deep emotional scars that result in him going into berserker-like rage during which he is capable of decimating an entire military unit and emerging from the encounter almost unscathed. For the most part he comes off as capable, if impatient and rude at times, but with undercurrents of cunning that don’t really come out until much later – and it’s those undercurrents of cunning that I appreciate the most about him. The rest of it seems a little contrived, particularly the berserker bit, but it works in the context of the story so it’s not so bad.
Giraut is also interesting, if only because he feels like a regular person caught up in extraordinary circumstances. His initial portrayal as the spoiled son of a wealthy banker eventually comes apart, revealing him to be a coward and something of an idiot, incapable of truly understanding what’s going on around him, but it’s those flaws that make him interesting – to me, anyway. He’s actually refreshingly normal as a character: neither heroic nor extremely intelligent, more prone to scratching his head in confusion than actually comprehending what he’s just done or what’s going on. The only thing he has really going for him is his extraordinary luck: pretty much everyone gets really badly hurt in the course of the novel, but Giraut makes it through with minimal injuries. That luck, of course, can be a little irritating at times, because it feels a little too much like deus ex machina, but it’s really the only way a guy like Giraut can make it through this entire story to the very end. In a slasher flick, he would be the character the audience thinks will be the first one dead, but turns out to be the sole survivor.
Iseutz is confusing, to say the least. The “sob story” that lands her in this team of misfits is pretty typical: she’s trying to dodge an arranged marriage because she doesn’t want to be the “perfect society lady” her parents want her to be. Upon first encountering her, it’s possible that the reader would want nothing more than to gag her, or stab her so she finally shuts up: she’s the whiniest, most irritating female character I’ve ever come across in a long while. There are times when the reader may be tempted to run her through the mouth with her own sword (which does happen, kind of, towards the latter third of the novel), but it becomes clear later on that, while Iseutz’s whining is incredibly irritating to both the characters and the reader, her complaints have a point; it’s just that the way she voices them makes it difficult to like her. In truth, she’s the least easiest of the characters to really like, and this can be rather troubling for readers – such as myself – who like reading about female characters who do not fall into that pit of “whining nagger.” Some of that feeling may be cleared up towards the middle of the novel, or it may not. Either way, Iseutz is not likely to win many fans, which is unfortunate for a novel like this and for a character with so much potential.
And then there is Addo. At first he seems quite colorless, very much like his reason for being there (he was ordered to by his father), but he becomes a bit more interesting as the novel progresses – especially once he takes everything in hand himself, because Phrantzes is proving to be a bit useless as a coach, and Suidas can be quite undiplomatic. During the very first part of the story he doesn’t stand out much, but later on he comes into his own, and he makes for a pretty good character – especially since he’s the reluctant villain in all of this, sent by his father to kill the Permian leaders and begin war again. He can be easy to glance over at times, but that’s part of what makes him an enjoyable character to read about: so much about him is unexpected. He does, however, suffer from some deus ex machina as well: all of his talents are commonly brushed off as being expected, because he’s his father’s son. There is a particular scene in the first third of the novel, wherein Addo mentions he has photographic memory, and it does come in handy in some subsequent events, but it’s never mentioned or seemingly used afterwards. It’s interesting, make no mistake, but it seems a bit like a throwaway thing that was useful only for that brief moment in the story and then forgotten because it served no other purpose.
Finally, there’s Phranztes: the sorriest character in this entire novel. It’s easy to pity him: at his age he ought to be settling down to a quiet life with his new wife, but is unable to do so because he has to deal with this fiasco. It’s also rather hard to see the point of his being there, at all: he feels more like a red herring for the other characters, an attempt to distract the reader by putting him forward as the possible cause of all the insanity in Permia when in truth it’s actually Addo and Suidas who are the agents involved in this elaborate game. He does, however, have the advantage of being a character the reader can immediately like: it’s easy to sympathize with his plight, and his characterization isn’t as polarizing as Iseutz’s or maybe Giraut’s. In many ways he draws the reader into the misfit team, acting as a center upon which the reader may rest when all the other characters drive one up the wall.
As for the plot, well, that’s where the real fun of this novel lies. It’s pretty clear to the reader early on in the novel that something’s going on, and whatever it is, it’s not going to be pleasant. There’s discontent and mysterious machinations going on in the high circles of politics in both Permia and Scheria, because someone wants the war to start all over again. Certain factions – the same ones that sent the team to Permia in the first place – are trying their hardest to prevent the war, but they can only sit on their hands, and hope that all goes well. The unraveling of the mystery is incredibly well done: there were quite a few unexpected twists, particularly towards the end. There are hints and clues scattered throughout the first two-thirds of the novel, and it’s really up to the reader to figure out how they fit together. It’s been a while since I encountered a plot as thick with intrigue as this, and I’m very pleased to have found it – I certainly didn’t find it in The Three Musketeers, that’s for sure.
And now that I mention The Three Musketeers, there’s one other thing that this novel does better than Dumas’ work: describing fencing. This can be a point of frustration or a point of fascination for the reader, but it must be said that Parker is to be congratulated for using proper fencing terms in this novel. It will likely take some research to get all the terms right (I know I did), but there’s a sense of satisfaction to be had when one knows what “demi-volte” means, or what measures have to do with stabbing one’s opponent.
Overall, Sharps is a ridiculously fun story, at least in terms of its plot: the twists and turns can be unexpected, and the fencing is impeccably described. The characters are pretty interesting, too, but do have some flaws that might be deal-breakers for some readers, or which might not matter if the reader is willing to ignore them. Iseutz, in particular, is problematic, but this may be because I myself prefer a particular type of female character, and Iseutz does not fit into that mold as perfectly as I want her to. This appears to be the type of novel that a reader can enjoy, nor not enjoy, according to his or her own preferences, and it really does take reading it to figure that out.