Friday, January 28, 2011

The Hammer - K.J. Parker


About the Book

The colony was founded seventy years ago. The plan was originally to mine silver, but there turned out not to be any.

Now an uneasy peace exists on the island, between the colonists and the once-noble met'Oc, a family in exile on a remote stronghold for their role in a vaguely remembered civil war. The met'Oc are tolerated, in spite of occasional cattle stealing raids, since they alone possess the weapons considered necessary protection in the event of the island's savages becoming hostile.

Gignomai is the youngest brother in the current generation of met'Oc. And he is about to provide the spark that will ignite a brutal and bloody war.

Every time I read a K.J. Parker book, I have to sit back for a few days and wonder how in the holy hell I plan on reviewing it. Parker doesn’t just write on one level, (s)he is multi leveled and deep and it’s very hard for me, as a reviewer, to adequately review a book with so much depth. The Hammer is no different.

On the surface The Hammer is about Gignomai, who is displeased about his family and sets out to pave his own way. It isn’t until well past the halfway mark of the book that you really learn about Gignomai’s motivation. Until that point in the book, the reader is left, in proper Parker style, to figure out what is going on themselves. Some might strain at the lack of direction offered, but there is a huge payoff and reward and once things are explained. From that point events culminate rapidly. 

There are parts of The Hammer which remind me distinctly of Ziani from The Engineer Trilogy. Gignomai is intelligent and mechanically minded as well as proficient at intrigue and wrapped in mystery. These things combined create a rich tapestry of events and mysterious motivations. Half the fun of reading The Hammer is figuring out what is going on and why, so I hesitate to dissect the plot too much. It should be remembered that this is a stand-alone book so the depth that Parker gave Ziani isn’t quite there with Gignomai, but he is no less mysterious, enjoyable or thought provoking because of that.

It’s Parker’s characters that shine. (S)he never hesitates to shine the light on the darker and lighter sides of human nature. By taking simple themes like good and evil, right and wrong, Parker has woven together a novel that is shocking, dark, and intensely thought provoking. It is interesting to watch all of the characters in this book struggle with these concepts and to see how they realistically justify their actions in a believable way. By this, Parker highlights the importance of perspective upon morality. Each character does despicable things and each character pays for that somehow, but in their eyes they are all in the right. Nowhere is this shown more than the parallel Parker draws between Gignomai and his father.

Therein lies the beauty of Parker and the depth. Her characters are shockingly gray and their ability to justify their actions to not only appeases themselves, but others, is impressive. It should also be noted that this book isn’t told in chapters, rather divided into sections all centering around the length of time away from an important event things are taking place (for example one section is called, “five years after”). This event becomes of central importance to the overall plot and readers will not find out what it is until well past the halfway mark.

In typical Parker fashion, this book has no magic or religion. While there are strange cultures and it takes place in a new world (references are made to The Republic from The Folding Knife), the world Parker fashioned is very similar to our world about a hundred years ago, only with different names and slightly different rules. While some readers may feel that her themes and characters are too dark and the world is not fantasy enough (a common complaint), those who decide to chance The Hammer will be wowed with Parker’s depth, amazing characterization and brazen toying with the idea of morality.

Though I felt that parts of The Hammer reminded me of a watered down version of The Engineer Trilogy, and thus didn’t strike me as being quite as unique as it might seem to those who have not read that trilogy, it is no less enjoyable for it. Parker’s prose are fluid and descriptive without bogging the novel down with too many mechanical details (a complaint I had from The Engineer Trilogy). The world is vibrant and the characters shine. However, it’s the theme of the novel, the hints, secrets and symbolism that struck me the most, as well as Parker’s bravery to play with common themes and make them all his/her own all without ever leaving that morally gray area I so love.

The Hammer is a book that will resonate with its readers and is a worthy addition to any Parker collection.

4/5 stars 

I'm also proving a link to a Subterranean Press interview done with Parker wherein the author discusses some ideas (like the "doctrine of sides") which I feel are directly relevant to the plot of the book. Click here for the interview.

6 comments:

  1. Great review, Sarah! This sounds wonderful, and I've been interested in reading more by Parker ever since reading The Folding Knife. I've been trying to decide whether to read this for my next Parker book or the Engineer trilogy and now I think I'll start with this one first.

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  2. Great review! What did you think about the ending?

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  3. Another great review! I wait for my copy of THE HAMMER. With reading tons of steampunk K.J. Parker went off from my radar. I think I would like to read The Folding Knife before The Hammer.
    But maybe I should write first all reviews about the books I read in the past two months :-)

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  4. I like to think of K.J. Parker as the thinking man's John Abercrombie - there is a comparable sub- and perversion of common fantasy tropes, but where Abercrombie tends towards light (but highly enjoyable) entertainment, Parker is the more ambitious author, his novels both more complex and more demanding. Sometimes more ponderous, too - especially his trilogies often are somewhat plodding under the weight of all the detail he's heaping on the plot. For that reason I for one rather welcome the move towards single volume novels - actually my favourite work of Parker's so far is probably his novella Purple and Black.

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  5. I have yet to read Purple and Black - though I've heard amazing things about it.

    I like how you put that comment about Parker being the thinking man's Joe Abercrombie. I totally agree with that. Parker's novels really are more demanding and full of detail. I also do agree that Parker's trilogies do tend to sag somewhat under the weight of all the detail (s)he heaps onto things. I enjoy the move toward single novels as well, they are far more self contained but somehow manage to pack just as much punch as the trilogies.

    Fantastic insight. I really appreciate that.

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  6. "The book isn't fantasy enough," is a complaint I have seen about this book far too often. Half the reason for this is that it's only nominally a fantasy. The fantasy is just a costume; it's something else crossdressing as fantasy. Strip off the skin, and you'll see tendons, muscles and skeleton shifting and moving underneath which are entirely gothic. Look particularly at the role of women, the decaying castle on the hill, the isolation and the vastness of the wilderness, intuition vs. reason, sentiment vs. pragmatism, colonial themes, the repression and the repression and the repression. Now examine in which ways the ending differs from a traditional gothic novel, and why Parker chose to publish it as a fantasy rather than writing a historical novel or an explicitly gothic novel. Twist the two sides in opposing directions and you should find it opens up quite neatly. The recurring Parker themes of moral relativism, examination of Objectivism, myth and the process of history aren't old, despite Parker trotting them out for us for the fifth or sixth time now. And all of Parker's work is haunted by burning buildings, even in the gentle and playful "Blue and Gold" when Saloninus set off the smoke bomb, I was sure he was going to burn the fucking thing down or burn something else down later on even though he assured us he intended nothing of the sort.

    Things I'm not sure about are the final encounter with Luso (did that actually happen?), and what Parker was trying to accomplish with Teucer.

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