K J Parker’s The Two of Swords is being released in small chunks over time, chapter by chapter, as serialized fiction. Whether or not this works out in the long run, I can’t say, but I can, at least, comment on it as it goes along. So today I’m bringing my thoughts on the first 3 parts of the story.
“Why are we fighting this war? Because evil must be resisted, and sooner or later there comes a time when men of principle have to make a stand. Because war is good for business and it’s better to die on our feet than live on our knees. Because they started it. But at this stage in the proceedings,” he added, with a slightly lop-sided grin, “mostly from force of habit.”
A soldier with a gift for archery. A woman who kills without care. Two brothers, both unbeatable generals, now fighting for opposing armies. No one in the vast and once glorious United Empire remains untouched by the rift between East and West, and the war has been fought for as long as anyone can remember. Some still survive who know how it was started, but no one knows how it will end.
Thoughts: Each chapter is told from a different character’s viewpoint, and chapter 1 follows the story of Teucer, a surprisingly good archer who, along with other young men from his village, has just been called to war. The war has been raging for what seems like forever, and it quickly becomes apparent that Teucer has no idea why. Nor, it seems, does anyone else. They fight the war because they were told to, and they’ve always fought. Nor, it seems, does that army have particularly good organization skills; they’re largely left to get lost along the way and then almost arrested for desertion. But when Teucer’s friends are massacred and only he and another man named Musen are left alive, Teucer really starts to suspect that there’s far more going on here than meets the eye.
I thought Teucer was a pretty good character to start the story off with. He’s not quite a blank slate character, but he’s pretty close to it. He’s fleshed out and has his own personality, but he’s also quite ignorant of a lot of things, he leaves it to others to lead the way, and he asks a lot of questions, so even when they don’t get answered, you’re still left with the feeling that you’re not supposed to know any better than he is regarding what’s happening. And Parker does a good job of conveying the frustration felt when Musen keeps dropping hints and then and then refusing to explain them. Definitely a good intro to the story, filled with plenty of action and tension and the beginnings of what could well be an interesting world.
Thoughts: This chapter is told from Musen’s perspective rather than Teucer’s, and it’s here that I got a greater understanding of the title of the whole story. A variation of tarot cards plays a fairly large role in Musen’s chapter, part of his faith and his position as a craftsman. Typically in tarot, the Sword arcana represents thoughts, power, and conflict, and twos often represent meetings and the acquisition of information. Each chapter, I noticed, was told from the perspective of a character met by the main character of the previous chapter, who brought them information (and often confusion; I guess the card was reversed in the reading!)
(Why yes, I do know how to read tarot cards…)
So Musen and Teucer have been captured, and Teucer sent away while Musen remains. He gets involved with the army, mostly helping out in stores, but indulging his habits of thieving now and again. Musen becomes more than just the irritating “I know something you don’t know” character we saw in the first chapter. We get to see more of his faith in the gods, and what being a craftsman means to him. He’s still very much a jerk, but he has layers, and there’s a good deal of interest to him. Especially toward the end of this chapter, when he’s confronted by a strange woman who tells him that he ought to get training to be a better thief, and to use that skill for good.
I wasn’t as fond of this chapter as I was of Teucer’s, mostly because this one seemed to range between interesting things and just very boring things. Lots of ups and downs. The ending was fantastic, and I want to know more about what happens to Musen at this thief school, but getting to that scene felt a bit tedious. Still, not bad, and it’s early days yet. Any confusion I felt about events in the first chapter slowly faded, too, as more and more of the world was revealed through the eyes of a much more knowledgeable character, and it makes me appreciate how the first 3 chapters were released at the same time. Had it just been part 1, with part 2 coming out a month later, I can’t say that my interest would have held.
Thoughts: This part is from Telamon’s perspective, the woman who meets Musen in the previous chapter and influences him to train to be a better thief. We see that she’s in deep when it comes to politics, going where and doing what is needed. This is a good thing for the reader, since we get to see deeper into the inner workings of politics (which, after all, are central to war), and her mission to assassinate an important figure definitely keeps you reading.
But I have to say that I liked this chapter least of all, and it gave me a better appreciation for Musen’s chapter. I’m not sure if this is going to be a trend in future installments of this story, or whether it’s how I read a lot of books and just don’t because more often than not, I get to just move straight on with the story and see most of it in retrospect anyway. Hard to say.
She’s an interesting character, for sure, but for all that you’d expect her position to bring major excitement to the story, it feels rather flat, like she’d rather be doing anything else and thus so does the reader. A good chunk of her section is also about current performances, too. On one hand, this is a good way to introduce someone central to her mission. On the other hand, it felt like those parts needlessly inflated the chapter at times, and I’d rather the chapter skipped to her actually getting on with her mission than talking with people about the performance she just saw.
Personal taste. It didn’t ruin the chapter, but it didn’t do anything to endear itself to me either.
So far, though, I’m impressed with the early parts of the story, and I do want to continue and see where it all leads. It’s more military than I usually like my fantasy, but there’s enough intrigue and a complex world that I’m compelled to keep going, to see which characters get their time in the spotlight and what new tantalizing layers of the world get peeled back.
(Received for review from the publisher.)