A Very Chilly War: A Review of K.J. Parker’s Savages

savages_kjparker

Savages (2015)
Written by: K.J. Parker
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 392 (Kindle)
Publisher: Subterranean Press

 

Why I Chose It: I’d never read any of Parker’s books, and I was intrigued by the news that after 17 years of writing as K.J. Parker (presumably a woman using a pseudonym to avoid being discriminated against in the field), it was revealed last year that K. J. Parker was actually British comedic novelist Tom Holt. Now that was interesting. Why would a man choose to use a pseudonym that would almost certainly make people assume he was a woman? That hooked me.

The Premise:

An unnamed man wakes to find himself facing the loss of everything that matters most to him. Against all odds, he escapes with his life and heads out into the turbulence of the wider world, recreating himself, step by step, as he goes along.

That wider world is dominated by an empire that has existed for decades in a state of near perpetual war. A host of colorful characters will help to shape the destiny of the empire, and its constantly shifting array of allies and adversaries; among them, a master military strategist, a former pacifist who inherits his father’s moribund arms business, a beautiful forger and a very lucky counterfeiter. Each of them, together with corrupt bureaucrats and the nomadic ‘savages’ of the title, plays a part in a gradually unfolding drama of conflict and conquest played for the highest of stakes.

VERY MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD

Discussion: Savages, at its heart, is what I would call Military Fantasy. Its strengths and much of its content have more to do with descriptions of battles and their planning and staging than anything else. Parker does a very fine job with battle scenes large and small, and the fact that I can remember most of them well enough to recount them is a mark of his skill. They’re memorable and interesting.

That said, I’m always more interested in the people involved in the war than the war itself. Here Parker feels less deft. Although he introduces characters from different armies and walks of life, we never really get into their heads. They all seem shut down, not inclined to self-awareness, or willfully blocking out deep thought. I felt like I was skittering over the surfaces of Parker’s characters without ever getting engaged in their motivations and desires. I didn’t feel as immersed as I wanted to be. This made the novel feel distant and downright chilly.

The novel’s geographical scope is somewhat small for what I assume is the first of a series. Most of the action takes place in the imperial city, with many of the battles nearby. If this becomes a series, I suspect he intends to take us to the other lands he mentions. Parker’s world-building skills are sparse but superb. His descriptions of armor and armament-making are fascinating, as are detailed descriptions of document and currency forging, which play no small part in the plot.

As for the plot, it felt thin, mostly bouncing from battle to battle until the discovery of a prophecy gave the plot more shape. The savages of the title are the tribes the empire is fighting, or using to fight, depending on where we are in the novel. They live harder lives than the city-dwelling Imperials, but I never had a sense that they were less happy or less fortunate. I think we’re meant to feel like the ultimate battle between the two is a statement on the indulgences of the city-dwellers, but with neither savage nor tradesman being portrayed in either a noble or degenerate light, I didn’t feel the sense of desired retribution that I think Parker may have liked me to feel. Neither did I feel much pain or pleasure when some of the POV characters made it through these many battles and some didn’t. The cool detachment of many of the characters contributed to that feeling as well.

Perhaps most importantly to me, I found Parker’s portrayal of women to be a real hurdle to my enjoyment of the story. From the opening scene when our protagonist dispassionately decides to start a new life even though his wife and mother have just been murdered, to the mid-point of the novel when we finally meet a female character with more than two or three lines of dialogue, I struggled with this issue. Although I don’t believe that every novel has to have a female POV character, I do want women to have names, dialogue, stories, and agency. I want them to be more than the nameless or wordless “she” or “her” that many of the male characters in this novel leave behind without another thought. Although we’re introduced to two named female characters in the second half of the novel, their appearance is so rare, and they had so little page time, that it wasn’t enough to make me feel like Parker cared about a female audience.

In Conclusion: I think people who love Parker really love him. He’s talented and accomplished, and I would certainly recommend him to friends who love military fiction. But I might add a warning about the lack of female points of view and the sparseness of female characters in general.

4 Comments

  • Ron Edison October 13, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    Wow. I’ve read quite of few Tom Holt novels but only one by Parker (something about an island). I’d never have guessed they were the same author.

    Reply
    • sharonpatry October 14, 2016 at 7:30 am

      I know, right? There were a “few” moments of dark humor, but other than that, you’d never see Holt in there.

      Reply
  • Lane Robins October 18, 2016 at 10:56 pm

    I am a huge fan of the novellas. That’s where you find the very very very dry humor. Purple & Black is both funny and tragic. Blue & Gold was also really enjoyable.

    Reply
  • Lane Robins October 18, 2016 at 10:59 pm

    Hit post too soon. If you want to give him another chance, there’s a collection of his shorts and novellas in a book called Academic Exercises. I’m neutral on his characterization of women, partly because all his character seem distant and tricky.

    Reply

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