Friday, March 29, 2013

Book Review: Sharps

I finished Sharps by K.J. Parker last week (I think?), and am finally getting 'round to writing a review. I saw it randomly at Barnes & Noble while nursing a vanilla latte several weeks ago, and when my dad sent me a giftcard to, I added it to my cart immediately. I'm not sure what exactly intrigued me about it beyond the fact that it's about fencing. I'm really picky about what books I read, and if I'm not super interested after reading the back cover blurb, I probably won't bother. Still, I had never read anything by K.J. Parker before, and I had absolutely no idea if Sharps would be any good.

When I started reading, I had just tossed Beautiful Creatures aside in a huff, frustrated that I couldn't relate to the characters or muster any interest in what happened to them. I felt I needed a break from YA paranormal romance, so I started Sharps without super high expectations.

I was instantly hooked. Honestly, for about the first 50 pages, I had no idea what was going on, or who anyone was. There's a vaguely Game of Thrones-y vibe about the book in that it's told from several characters' points of view, and it's heavy on the political intrigue. Plus the characters' names are super weird (Tzimisces? COME ON). But for some inexplicable reason I felt I needed to find out what was going to happen, and I kept reading. I'm so glad I did, because I was thoroughly swept up in the story and the various arcs of each character.

The story follows a team of fencers from Scheria, who are sent on a fencing tour through a neighboring enemy country, Permia. It's meant to be a sort of peace-making mission, because Permians are hardcore fans of fencing, and the two countries have recently been at war with one another. The team consists of three men and a woman, all of whom are pretty much either bribed, coerced, or forced into representing their country on this team. The tour goes awry form the get-go, with their party facing bandits, a broken axle, horrible weather, and far too much pickled cabbage. As their journey through Permia continues it begins to verge on the ridiculous, with riots, fires, more bandits, and assassinations following in their wake.

What kept me interested, aside from the great characterizations, was this constant feeling that there were bigger machinations going on in the background. I don't want to give anything away, but there's a definite feeling of "what's really going on with this fencing tour?" throughout the narrative that kept me turning the pages.

The characters themselves were as intriguing to me in their own right as the "plot" as it were, though I suppose you can count character arcs as plot arcs. Maybe? Anyway. The Scherian fencing team is made up of Giraut, a young man who's told to choose between joining the team and being hanged, so he makes the obvious choice. He's a practiced fencer, but a privileged young man who literally freezes at the first sign of danger. Addo is the son of a Scherian war hero, and as his father requested that he join the team, he really has no choice but to do so. He's quiet and unassuming, but arguably one of the most complex characters on the team. Suidas is a champion fencer, and is offered a significant amount of money to join the team. He starts out as the group's voice of reason, taking the lead when their carriage's axle breaks and leaves them stranded, but as their journey progresses his behavior becomes more erratic as he's forced to relive his time served in the war. And finally there's Iseutz, the only lady of the team, terminally grumpy and only there because it's better than the marriage that had been arranged for her back in Scheria.

The team's interactions are strained from the start, and since pretty much nothing goes right during the entirety of the tour, they're at one another's throats for the majority of it. What I loved was the sarcastic, banter-y dialogue and the author's dry, witty style. Often the book felt like a very dark comedy, but I wouldn't describe it as such. In fact I don't really know how to describe it, as it's not high fantasy and it's not even really about fencing. It could almost be like, gritty mannerpunk, or... realistic fantasy? There's no magic, no fairies or monsters, just people. But it's set in a fantasy world, so take that as you will.

This is the most rambling, useless book review in the world, and I'm sorry. You'll really just have to read the book and form an opinion for yourself. I really, really liked it. The characters were alive and engaging, the dialogue was brilliant, the story and conflict carried along at a nice clip, and the world was so fully realized that I have a hard time believing it doesn't exist somewhere. For me the real heart of this story is in the characters, so if you're a fan of character-driven books, I'm looking at you! Check this one out.

So yes, Sharps was a surprising hit with me, and I urge everyone to read it, regardless of your normal taste in books, because I can see pretty much anyone enjoying it. Go! Read!


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