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Merle

Merle

The Hammer - K.J. Parker I wish there were more books like this: fantasy only because it’s set in a secondary world, with complex characters and unpredictable plots and moral ambiguity and solid writing and dialogue. This book is not for everyone—while it’s apparently less dark than much of Parker’s previous work, the main character is not altogether likeable and the plot is driven by a couple of atrocities that the reader won’t soon forget. Still, it’s so well-crafted that I would certainly recommend to anyone looking for a serious, thought-provoking, gritty fantasy novel.

It’s hard to say much about the plot without spoiling part of the fun, so I’ll just describe the set-up: in a poor, remote colony of a distant empire, an exiled noble family lives in uneasy peace with the colonists and the indigenous people; Gignomai, the noble family’s youngest son, rebels against his father’s leadership, and a host of complications result. (Is that vague enough?) While the plot isn’t necessarily fast-moving, there’s a lot packed into 400 pages, and I wound up reading it compulsively.

There are a lot of great things about this book. It’s very well-constructed. The author uses foreshadowing excellently, which sounds silly, but rarely do I see it done so well: while the climax was not predictable, looking back it was so well set up as to be inevitable. Gignomai is both a fascinating and a frustrating protagonist; he keeps secrets from the reader, and he’s not a “good” guy, but he’s complicated and driven and gets things done. The other major characters are equally complex and interesting.

I also loved the world this story is set in: rather than another generic quasi-medieval setting, we have a small, backwater colony, mostly devoted to cattle-ranching, with somewhat more advanced technology (there are guns, although they’re not very accurate). I enjoyed reading about the everyday problems of the colony, meeting the local characters and seeing how the place changed during the story. Parker has a very precise, down-to-earth writing style and pays attention to things like economics, making the story feel so much more real and believable than the vast majority of fantasy out there.

The one thing I didn’t much like about this book (other than a few continuity errors) was that the women in it exist either to be love interests or to be murdered horribly and spark off other events. There are only a couple of women who get any real characterization, and both are married off for contrived reasons. But at least their characterization is decent for their minor roles in the story.

At any rate, Parker’s books certainly deserve a wider audience than they seem to have. This one raises a lot of hard questions (about morality, and the relative importance of justice vs. peace, and the way people respond to authority, and more) that I expect I’ll be thinking about for awhile. Additionally, it’s enjoyable and just an all-around high-quality book.