Mightier than the Sword
by K.J. Parker
Cover Artist: Vincent Chong
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596068179
Date: 30 June 2017 List Price $40.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
K.J. Parker has written a new novella. Therefore, you should go out and buy it.
For those of you who have already read some of Parker's work, that is probably review enough. But those who have yet to discover Parker probably want a bit more of a review. Fair enough. Let me start by saying that Parker is one of the most interesting, funny, brutal, thought-provoking, and entertaining fantasy authors working today. Despite almost never including any magic or other supernatural elements, the fantasy worlds Parker builds feel as weird and foreign as any world of magic and gods; all the more so for being based on (rigorously researched) real world cultures and time periods.
Mightier Than the Sword is a great introduction to Parker's writing, showing off many of the themes common to his work in a bite-sized package. The story follows an imperial legate, nephew of the emperor, in a sprawling empire whose emperors rarely have the chance to die in bed. He is dispatched by his aunt, the empress, to deal with the murderous rampages of "the land and sea raiders", who have been burning the monasteries in which are preserved and copied out the books that contain the wisdom of recorded history. However, there is much more going on than meets the eye, with plots and potential betrayals abounding.
Parker creates a compelling voice for his main character, who narrates the story in the first person. He is entertainingly flippant and irreverent, but also deeply concerned with morality in a time and a place where he can do little to act on his moral convictions. He is intelligent, competent, and a believable tactical genius without being infallible, which is a hard thing to pull off.
The plot gives us a mix of intrigue, excellently written battle sequences, mystery, and even romance, all in not much more than 100 pages. The central question of the story is how to balance the preservation of knowledge, which could give untold benefits to future generations, against the lives and happiness of those living now. One of the benefits of empire, as Parker sees it, is the opportunity it offers to preserve and build on knowledge. But it buys this benefit at a terrible cost in lives. Is it worth spilling so much blood for the sake of books? The narrator of the novella comes to his answer, but Parker makes clear that there are no easy answers.