Fantasy Review: ‘The Colours in the Steel’ by K. J. Parker

I believe it was George Carlin that said the key to any joke is wherein lay the Colours in the Steel (Fencer Trilogy, #1)exaggeration.  Most of the set up must ring true or the specific absurdity that makes everything funny won’t have the impact.  In many ways I believe fantasy fiction works the same way.  It is okay by me if there are a few items that stretch the limits of credibility; it isn’t fantasy without something extraordinary going on.  But even with these specific exaggerations I must believe in the rest of the world the author sets in front of me or the entire thing falls flat.

K.J. Parker is a master at making me overlook the exaggerations.  Of course they are there; the protagonist of this book is afencer for hire in a city that relies on duels to the death in a courtroom setting.  The main conflict comes from a nomadic group of people who almost instantaneously change into industry barons, all on the knowledge of one man who went to work in the city.  Completely absurd?  Sure, looking on it like that.  But one hundred percent believable due to the way it is written, full of all the little things that fit together ever so nicely.

I recently commented that Parker’s books should be boring; they are full of the little details that should drive me nuts.  Do I really need to know the entire process of sword making?  Should I know when to use water and when to use oil, which is better for cooling at what stage?  Is any of this really necessary?  You bet it is.  No idea why, but I loved every nitty gritty detail thrown at me.

What should a reader expect from The Colours in the Steel?  Well, fans of Parker who may have skipped her early stuff shouldn’t be disappointed if they go back, it is a familiar ride.  People who may not know her?  Seems as good a place to start as any.  The book is dark and gritty, just how I like it.  Even characters that start off likable work their way into the unlikable stage, but that simplifies Parker’s characters too much.  There is no easy way to view any of the characters.  Some are not good people but immensely likable, others show nothing too apparently evil but never less are unlikable.  But unlikable doesn’t have to be uninteresting; I was interested in every major character arc.  (In later Parker books I have seen complete casts that are horrible people; it was actually a bit surprising to see a few nice people in The Colours in the Steel).

Dark humor a plenty, again presented in a subtle way.  Loredan (have I mentioned the protagonist’s name yet?  Well, there it is) finds a particular potent recipe for a weapon hidden in a book that also included necromancy and voodoo; and considered giving them a shot when said weapon worked better than expected.  A list of stock letter offerings amused me in ways I can’t even begin to explain.

We see a just a hint of magic, though the practitioners of it will balk at calling it magic at all.  We enjoy a couple of genius characters; one completely in charge and thus dealing with his own failings, the other answering to a group and getting blamed for everything.

This is not my favorite book by the author, but it was still damn good.  With plotting so complex I would expect some logical inconsistencies to slip through but I never really understood what one character’s long term plan was; nor how he was so confident it could be pulled off.  As the original plan fell apart and other options were explored I the issue took care of itself, but for a while it bugged.

Like other books by the author I was entertained throughout.  The humor is dark and hits me right and the little details kept me trying to out think everyone in the book.  As I received the whole series of course I will continue on, but being that this is Parker that was a foregone conclusion anyway.

4 Stars

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