Monday, 9 June 2008

‘The Company’ – K.J. Parker (Orbit Books)


I tried to read one of K.J. Parker’s ‘Engineer’ books last year but just could not get into it. While it had everything that I like about fantasy (apart from dragons, at least in the bit that I read) it felt like an incredibly dry read to me, loads of great stuff there but nothing that really hooked me. If that wasn’t hard enough to get past there was also what felt like far too much talk of technical engineering stuff for my poor ‘non-technical’ brain to handle. I know the books are about an engineer but even so… It got to the point where I was never going to finish the book so I put it down for something else instead. All this was at the back of my mind when an advance copy of K.J. Parker’s ‘The Company’ came through the door a couple of weeks ago but what swung it for me was the ‘military fantasy’ slant and the fact that it’s a ‘stand alone’ novel. If I didn’t like it then at least I wouldn’t be left wondering how the story ended! As it happened, I was left with pretty much the same problems as last time. At least the story was good though…
The war is over and General Teuche Kunessin is gathering together his old comrades in arms in order to start the new life that they had promised themselves during the fighting. A deserted island is the ideal place for them to set up their new home and Kunessin has left no stone unturned in making sure that they have everything that they need (up to and including wives!) However, an unexpected discovery casts a new light on everything and secrets, which the colonists brought with them, threaten to shatter everything they have worked for…
In much the same way as the ‘Engineer’ book came across, ‘The Company’ felt to me like a book where a great deal of potential was being hidden by niggling little things that were conspiring to stop me reading. The tone felt as dry as before, there was a lot of momentous stuff happening but it didn’t feel as if there was. While some scenes were suitably climactic it just seemed to emphasise how the rest of the book could have been… (Although to be fair some of these scenes are actually quite hard hitting once you’ve got to know the characters). There also seemed to be a lot of importance placed on describing exactly ‘how’ things were made or built and it felt like this was getting in the way of the story itself. While it was good to see how a boat was built or a fence put up, too much detail meant that there wasn’t enough time for me to really get to know the characters and this sometimes made their actions a little hard to grasp (as well as obscuring the bonds of friendship that made A Company ‘tick’)… All this is a shame because when you get past this, the actual story is well worth reading.
‘The Company’ isn’t so much a ‘fantasy story’ as a story based in a fantasy setting. There is a sense of a much wider world out there but the story concentrates on the characters and how they interact. I’ve already said that the dynamic behind A Company could have been better explored but the dynamic behind the colonists, as a whole, comes across fairly well with character traits introduced at certain points to explain actions and keep things ticking along in the plot. You would have thought that founding a colony would be fairly straightforward (albeit hard work) but the author leaves us in no doubt that it’s anything but straightforward if your colonists are either harbouring secrets or are just plain psychotic! There were some twists in the tale that I definitely wasn’t expecting and this was what kept me reading…
‘The Company’ isn’t just a story about colonists though; a series of flashbacks, to the war, cast some light on why the veterans have ended up the way they are (but not really enough for me) and set up events that will take place on the island. Some brutal stuff takes place in these flashbacks and Parker excels here in his ability to shock the reader not only with violence but also with it’s unexpected results…
Despite the dryness of the book, and an inclination to spend too much time on minutiae, ‘The Company’ is a book that kept me reading right up until the very end and that’s where my problem lies. There was enough there to keep me going but not enough to keep me interested, consequently I was left feeling strangely cheated at having spent the time on it in the first place…
If you’re a fan of K.J Parker then I think you’ll find plenty to enjoy here but maybe ‘The Company’ isn’t one for a casual reader…

Six and Three Quarters out of Ten

6 comments:

Kendall said...

I'm intrigued, despite the dryness. It sounds like a great setup for some psychological tension.

I own Parker's Shadow but haven't read it yet. The Engineer series sounded interesting based on an excerpt I read a few years ago (though I remember it was a little dry). Anyway, there aren't enough stand-alone fantasy novels, IMHO; this might be a good way for me to try Parker's work, instead of starting with book one of a trilogy.

> his ability

I believe (but am not certain) that K.J. Parker's a woman.

Graeme Flory said...

It is definitely one to look out for if you like psychological tension and the whole 'stand alone' thing means it is a good way to check out whether you like K.J. Parker's work or not.

I've been bugging Orbit to tell whether K.J. Parker is a man or a woman. Funnily enough, they're not telling :o) I figured I'd take a 50/50 shot and go for 'his'...

kendall said...

LOL! I suppose they have their reasons, but I think the odds are a lot lower than 50% that Parker's a man.

Except in romance, do male authors (or publishers thereof) ever go to these lengths to obscure their gender? IMHO the gender-hiding alone implies Parker's a woman.

But I just Googled and found (via Wikipedia) a link to Parker's French publisher's site. Whoops, they're not part of the conspiracy; they obscure who she is, but they use "elle" (she") and have a photo of a silhouette of what sure looks like a women. ;-) I think the cat's out of the bag....

ThRiNiDiR said...

I haven't read anything by Parker yet (nobody seems to know if Parker is a she or a he :)), but my friend liked her engineer trilogy quite a bit (he wrote the review for Escapement on our blog) and I usually consider his opinion well worth taking into account. I'm sending him a link to your review. I believe he will be glad to hear that the new KJ Parker book is out :).

oldschooly said...

I picked up a copy of Devices and Desires to read on the plane en route to the US - and didn't want to get off at the other end!! Now I've got the complete set of three trilogies and all nine books are getting worn out from over-reading. It's the technical detail, the character studies and the humour that I particularly enjoy and, having read each one several times, I'm constantly amazed that I see the story from a different angle on each re-read.

Although in a different genre, I'm also a big fan of LeCarre; and, whilst I thought that his plots were convoluted, KJ Parker's beats them in spades.

So, if you haven't read the books, my advice is to stick with them - they WILL grow on you. I would however, add a couple of warnings: 1. don't read while commuting on public transport - you WILL miss your stop on numerous occasions.
2. Don't read the Engineer Trilogy more than once a year - you WILL end up buying a lathe, a milling machine and a small forge. You'll also buy tools and stacks of metal, takeover the garage and set it up as a small workshop and spend all weekend repairing all of the broken stuff in the house and making "useful" things out of steel, brass and anything else that takes your fancy.

Can't wait for "The Company" to arrive on the bookshelf. But I might have to extend it for the extra space. Still, now I've got the workshop...

Michael Mullin said...

The Engineering trilogy was spectacular IMHO. I am similarly loving The Company.

I enjoy Parkers writing style, she hides stuff in the dryness so that when she reveals more details on a plot you have this "OMG" moment.

I'm becoming a big fan of hers.