Review: The Hammer

The Hammer, by K.J. Parker

I’m not sure why I keep doing this to myself.

Check that; I know exactly why: It’s because K.J. Parker is a superb writer. Characterization, plotting, voice, pacing, worldbuilding… Parker’s got it all as far as secondary-world fiction goes. Bill James once said about Rickey Henderson that if you could split him in two, you’d have two Hall-of-Famers; that’s how I feel about Parker: If you could split her in two, each of the two writers would still be one of the best in the field.

That said, there’s an issue I have with her books: I don’t really like any of them. See, Parker’s books are extraordinarily cynical and depressing — her happiest stuff makes George R.R. Martin seem like a cheerful frolic through the Lollipop Forest, to give you a point of comparison. Parker loves to grind your face in grubby realism: Her worlds run on blood, oil, and dark sarcasm, and heroism and idealism are not only not effective, they’re not even really considered. She once said in an interview something to the effect that she believes in happy endings in the same way she believes in Pluto — she understands the concept, but doesn’t see what it has to do with anything.

As I’ve noted before, that’s not really why I read fantasy. I like heroism and idealism and happy endings, and seeing it so casually discarded in what is, after all, my escapism cuts a little close to the bone. If I want a world in which life is meaningless and only the most selfish and ruthless survive, I can turn on the news. When I read a fantasy novel, I want to see the good guys beat the odds.

But Parker is so good, and her books are so well-constructed. I feel like I kind of owe it to myself to read them in the same way that film buffs need to watch all the Oscar nominees, even if they’re sick to death of Nazis and people with disabilities. So we reach a grudging impasse — I buy them and read them and marvel at their narrative ingenuity and brilliant prose, but I don’t really enjoy them, and when I’m done I move on to something more cheerful (like a hanging, or the massacre of kittens) with something like relief.

And The Hammer is a Parker book, through and through. It’s actually got one of the happier endings of her books, in that all of the protagonists are still alive and their lives aren’t completely destroyed, and it still ends on premediated mass murder and betrayed trust. That’s The Hammer in a sentence: Great, but not really my bag.

Parker’s got essentially two protagonist molds. First is the cosmic plaything, a reasonably good man who finds himself at the epicenter of massive cultural changes that he is helpless to control, and is ultimately destroyed (physically or spiritually) by them. The other is the clever mastermind, who ruthlessly but efficiently manipulates everyone else in the story to see his own (usually bloody) ends done. Gignomai, the protagonist of The Hammer, fits into that latter category, and most of the story is his unfolding scheme to accomplish… something. I’m hesitant to talk about it because it’s kind of a big plot point — much of the non-Gignomai-POV chapters consist of everyone else trying to figure out what, exactly, he’s up to, and why — but on the other hand, I’m nearly certain that a reasonably astute reader could figure out the answer to those questions even before the big reveal. (The way the novel is structured, chronologically, is a big hint.) The best I can do is say that Gignomai is the youngest son of a noble family that, a few generations back, was forced to flee into the hinterlands to escape some vague political trouble at home, but still holds itself aloof from both the colonists who live there and the native tribes who occupied the area before either of them reached the area. Gignomai’s plan involves forcing these disparate groups back into the mix together, until…

Speaking more generally, the novel feels a little more plodding than Parker’s other stuff. Gignomai’s plan doesn’t really suffer any setbacks — he sets out to do it, and essentially does — so you get that “on-rails” feeling where none of what’s going on really matters in the long run. (This is a big problem with Parker’s “mastermind” characters, as they tend to be too smart to be thwarted by the schmucks they’re surrounded with.) There’s less actually happening, so the novel is devoted more to characters feeling each other out and trying to decide what to do. One element I feel the novel does excellently as a result of this is its portrayal of charisma.

Most fantasy authors, you see, regard charisma as something of a black magic. It’s usually reserved for villains, and it’s something along the lines of a superpower that they turn on when they need to convince someone to do something against their better judgment. It almost feels like hypnosis, sometimes… like endearing awkwardness is the only genuine way for human beings to communicate. The Hammer doesn’t do that… Gignomai and both his brothers exude easy, confident, natural charisma, almost unknowingly. It’s easy to see why people give their words such weight, because you would too. They know how to talk to people in a fashion that results in them getting their way. They’d be likable if you didn’t know the truth behind the smiles. I’d love to see more real charisma in books, rather than as a slightly-more-subtle version of Jafar sticking his staff in the Sultan’s face.

The epilogue was kind of weird to me. I think I saw what it was trying to do, but I’m not entirely sure it came through. Little too rushed in my opinion.

So yeah: The Hammer: It is a K.J. Parker book, so read it if you like those. Then invest in antidepressants.

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