Tuesday, March 2, 2010

in good company

Niki Bruce reviews a fantasy book about the enduring bonds of fighting men.

THE latest book from KJ Parker, The Company, might nominally be labeled as fantasy, but more truthfully is a story about war and what it does to the men who fight it.

This is the first stand-alone novel from Parker, a prolific fantasy writer who's work has a tendency towards ambiguous characters and moral dilemmas.
From England, Parker has a background in law and journalism and also numismatics — the study of coins. Which is rather interesting as coins feature as an intriguing detail in The Company.
Beginning with the return of an old soldier, The Company follows the lives of five veterans of a dismal, grindingly long war fought at the technological level of the Middle Ages – swords, pikes, bows and the odd trebuchet.
A Company were 'linebreakers' — kind of like ground shock troops, sent in before the bulk of the infantry to 'break' the line of pikes that these massive, antiquated armies used. As such, linebreakers were, generally, the first to die.
But these men are different; all from the same region in the boondocks, they are basically farmers' sons sent to the military academy when the government became desperate for soldiers, and formed into an unbreakable cohort of fighting men.
Each character has his own troubled past — be it the death of a family's dream or the inattention of a father — but they lose themselves in years of bloodshed as they grow from teenagers to hardened, battle-scarred men.
When the war ends, four return home, and one stays: The General.
Many years later, the General turns up again, like a bad penny, and the five are reunited. But why has he returned? And what does he want them to do?
Parker's story flows around the five men's stories — flipping back to periods during the war to explain something of their loyalty to each other. However, there is an underlying sense of tension. While the loyalty remains, the men are no longer blindly loyal.
And it is this awareness of each other's foibles that eventually leads to a messy, depressing, betrayal-laden conclusion.
Explaining more of the plot in detail will give away the story — suffice to say, the five men embark on an adventure of sorts under the re-direction of their leader, the General. The addition of wives and servants to their tight-knit group adds to the disaster that is this story of five men who never really left the war behind them.
Parker's work is tightly written, with beautifully crafted plots and fine attention to details — like the basic mechanics of this age. She also works well with the gothic undertones a dank, dark period like the Middle Ages offers.
But it is her ability to describe the convolutions of human relationships that make The Company such a good read.
For anyone who's ever been in the military, this book will have resonance. And if you've never signed up; The Company will either convince you to join or make you run a mile.
The Company by KJ Parker is published by Orbit Books and is available from good book stores and online.

First published in The Straits Times blogs on
December 06, 2009



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