by K.J. Parker
Cover Artist: Bram Sels
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596066151
Date: 31 July 2015 List Price $40.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
K.J. Parker is beyond a doubt one of the most exciting fantasy authors writing today. Parker combines a deep understanding of pre-modern society and technology with a writing style that is so effortlessly entertaining that the details of blacksmithing or cart repair are as fascinating as a battle scene or a sorcerous duel are in the hands of a lesser talent. Combined with the complex characters and intriguing ambiguous moral dilemmas that are a hallmark of Parker's work, and we have a recipe for repeated success. Savages displays all of these strengths of Parker's writing. However, I must admit that, as entertaining as it is, the characters and plot feel a bit familiar, with ideas and scenarios previously explored in Parker's novels and short stories re-appearing. While still entertaining, this latest work feels a bit less fresh and new than previous outings.
The novel follows a number of interconnected stories. At the center of the action is the brilliant general Calojan, who repeatedly defeats the vastly superior forces of the Sashan in order to save the empire. Calojan's secret weapon is the Aram Coseilhatz, a tribe of nomadic shepherds and fierce warriors, whose skill at arms is a key part of Calojan's success. Chauzida, a young man not yet full grown, becomes prince of the Coseilhatz at the death of his father, and he finds himself faced with hard decision about how far to take his loyalty to the empire.
We also meet Raffen, a man who loses his home, his family, and even his identity, becoming a kind of actor in his own life, and who moves from his small village to the imperial city, to become surprisingly influential in its fate. Rounding out the main characters, we have Aimeric, the pacifist son of a weapons manufacturer who finds himself forced to take over his fathers business and finds it on the edge of collapse.
Savages is a very full story, almost overfull at times. Empires rise and fall, alliances are forged and broken, and new enemies appear time and again, all in under 400 pages. In some ways, this feels like it had the potential to be a much longer work, perhaps even a trilogy, and as a result a few of the plotlines feel a bit compressed. And, as I mentioned, some of the elements feel overly familiar. The nomadic horse archers have appeared in several previous works, and the emphasis on the costs and benefits of the excessive specialization that so characterizes modernity, its seeds already sown in the industrialized empire, is ground already trodden.
In some ways, then, Savages feels like a more compact version of Parker's masterwork, The Engineer Trilogy. While that series felt perhaps a touch too long, this is a touch too short, so new readers can pick which appeals more to them; both are excellent, length quibbles aside.
While this is not my favorite of Parker's works, it remains thoroughly entertaining. As with all of Parker's books, once I started I couldn't put it down, and I enjoyed every minute of it. While many of the elements are familiar, the ideas are rich enough to stand revisiting.