Colours in the Steel - K.J. Parker

Colours in the Steel

by K.J. Parker

 

In the city-state of Perimadeia, "the sword of justice" is more than just an expression, and it’s the lawyer who does the fighting. All commercial law is decided in trial by combat to the death. While this may make court cases rather more exciting, it does mean that careers in the law tend to terminate rather abruptly. Bardas Loredan, fencer-at-law, has managed to make a go of his profession for over a dozen years. Between his time as a soldier terrorizing the “savage” clansmen around the city and his career as an attorney, Loredan has met a lot of interesting people, but usually only once.

 

One of those people had a niece who thinks that justice is blind, and she is willing to take any lengths to correct the error. When she manages to rope a wizard into her cause, Loredan’s life is about to get a lot more complicated. 

 

It may have been only one meeting, but Temrai remembers Loredan vividly, a stony face perched above a body of steel. He remembers his family’s cries, his village going up in flames. And now Temrai is in the city. Making weapons.

 

All of the characters are interesting, flawed, multifaceted people. It’s just a pity that they’re all trying to kill each other.

 

I mean that in all seriousness. Loredan, the main protagonist -- or at least the main target-- is complex and multilayered. A reasonably talented fencer, he has no aspirations of fame or glory, but simply the desire to keep on slogging along, risking his life over the squabbles of merchants and for the greater glory of coal sellers. His main characteristic, and the one that has seen him through countless duels, is a ruthless, detached, fatalistic practicality.

“For his part, he’d always fenced exactly like what he was, a highly skilled and intelligent coward who knew that his only way of staying alive was to kill someone else.”

Beset by guilt over his past, he is still willing to do whatever it takes to stay alive, but once the excitement is over, he returns to his normal state of detachment. For example, take his thoughts after surviving a duel:

“Who’d have thought the hilt of an old army broadsword could snap the blade of a top-quality law-sword? It only went to show something he couldn’t currently be bothered with. Interesting, though; a tiny flaw in the steel, a bubble or a speck of grit or crap that had somehow been missed by the smith’s hammer, can reverse the outcome and overturn justice. He could feel that there had been something there that shouldn’t have been; something small and not accounted for, something somehow unfair. Probably, he decided, I cheated.”

When faced by crisis, he becomes terrifyingly cold and calculating, able to view risk, even to himself, as simply a cost to be weighed against the potential benefits. At the same time time, he is willing to apply the same fatalistic detachment to his own circumstances, accepting almost any outcome from prison to death with darkly cynical amusement and his catchphrase of “Fair enough.”

It’s depressing to think that all of his problems are the result of his stony lack of expression and his terrifying practicality. It’s more depressing to think that, for all his sardonic acuity, he never really learns.

He can think,

"What kind of man does a thing like that, entrench himself in the business of ending lives just because it’s the only way he knows of making a living?"

and realize the irony, yet he never really steps out of his role.

"That's what I've become, Loredan thought, or maybe that's what I've been all along; a weapon in someone else's hand, created to kill and do damage, either for good or for evil depending on whose hand I happen to be in."

 And yet I don’t think I believe Temrai’s later assertion that he was willing to give up until Loredan came out and insulted him. He’d come too far, put too much of himself into his dreams of revenge, so much that he can no longer extricate his sense of self from his thirst for blood.

If Loredan had escaped, then how in the gods’ names would be ever justify all this, all these thousands of burnt people and all this meaningless, horrible destruction? It’d be enough to drive a man mad; to burn down a whole city and destroy an entire nation just to kill one single individual, and for that one individual to escape . . . He drove the thought out of his mind, repulsing the assault it had made on the citadel of his sanity. The gods who had given him Perimadeia wouldn’t do that to him.

And that’s why I’m not reading the rest of the books. Because even in Loredan can forgive, can forget, can dispense with revenge, I don’t think Temrai can. I think Temrai will follow him, and begin this pointless war all over again.

(show spoiler)

I loved the world that Parker creates. I love the city of Perimadeia, where there’s a market in oil lamps in the shape of hedgehogs, where foreigners are met with curiosity and a casual sort of friendly racism, where there's a bar for every occasion, where the reaction to a threat to the city is a massive shopping spree:

“The clerks of Perimadeia had decided that the end was probably nigh, in which case they might as well indulge themselves while they still had money and their money was still worth something; and if it wasn’t the end of the world, they had cause for celebration, best effected by buying things.”

And I loved how Parker defied our expectations. For example, take the "savage" clansmen. We know that the plainspeople are identifiable by appearance alone, but the particulars are only mentioned once, in passing: they are slighter and fairer than the cityfolk. (Take that, Martin! Plus, it fits neatly into the sense of Perimandeia as Rome and the plainspeople as Celtic warriors.) I love the way that magic is portrayed in the world: as a science as abstract and impractical as topology or theoretical physics, but like theoretical physics, with a disturbing tendency to occasionally go off with a bang. Most of all, I love the humour that pervades the writing. A few--well, a lot-- of my favourites:

"She was supposed to come straight back here, and that was four hours ago. By now, she’s either dead or shopping."

“Contrary to popular belief the official doctors didn’t kill quite as many people as the lawyers did, though not for want of trying.”

"You have a duty to your fellow citizens, who need to love something, can’t love the government because nobody ever loves the government, and so have chosen you instead. You might at least have the good manners to be gracious about it."

"Enthusiasm, he thought. I had some of that myself once. And look where it got me."

"To die for one’s people is bad enough; to die for one’s people and lose as well must be a dreadful thing."

"They were like two men shipwrecked on an entirely unknown continent; everything they came across was new and unknown, which they could spend a lifetime studying if they weren’t so entirely preoccupied with staying alive and somehow getting home again."

"I’m starting to get the enemy and the auditors muddled up in my mind. I’m terrified of both of them, but the auditors know where I live."

However, despite all of the tongue-in-cheek wit and wordplay, I realized that I won't be picking up the next book. All of the protagonists are antiheroes to some extent, and almost all of their misery is self-inflicted. They fall into the same traps again and again, with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. There is no ultimate evil here; there are only people who hold grudges and misjudge each other and get everyone else around them killed. Parker’s portrait of war is not glorious or heroic or pulse-racing; it’s occasionally horrific, sometimes technical and boring, but always ugly, and always sad. This didn’t precisely surprise me. I’ve encountered quite a few of Parker’s short stories, and every single one was a vehement protest of war and all its trappings.

 

All the same, I’m an escapist reader. I have a weakness for dark worlds and black irony, but I desperately need to feel some sort of glimmer of hope, or the sense that the struggle is against something greater. This is all an ugly little squabble between human beings, with everyone in the wrong and no one in the right, exactly like the world I seek to escape. I don’t see any hope in the world that Parker creates, and in all honesty, I don’t have the heart to finish the series. The book itself is introspective and slow-paced, often seguing into long technical details of armaments and weaponry. But at the same time, it is an examination of war, of the cruelty and thoughtlessness that can forge a hatred that can only be sated by blood.

“Put the steel into the fire and watch it change colour; straw to orange to brown to purple to blue to green to black. According to some smiths he’d talked to, there’s a certain point at which something happens to heated steel. Make it hot enough and the flexibility changes to cutting hardness, at which point the skill lies in tempering it, quenching the heat with skill and care in such a way that the steel stays hard without becoming brittle. It’s a delicate business, the perfect balance of fire and water; although there are some smiths who prefer to temper in some kind of oil, and others who use blood. Blood, they say, puts something into the steel at that crucial moment of tempering, an extra touch of hardness on the outside of the metal that doesn’t affect the flexibility and resilience of the core.”

I love Parker’s imagination, xyr ability to create characters who breathe, who are so filled with that paradoxical mixture of flawed humanity that I can ache for them and be disgusted by them in turns. Above all, I love xyr humour. And even if I won’t be continuing in this series, I will be trying Parker's books again.