Having trampled his way through the lives of several dozen people, unwillingly terminating most of them on the way, Poldarn, amnesiac protagonist of Parker's mordant and enthralling story, finds himself 'back in the Olde Country'. For, at the end of book one, Shadow (reviewed elsewhere on this site), he was restored to the bosom of his loving family. Not, mind you, that it's as loving as all that.
Poldarn's folk, the Viking-esque raiders who live on two great isles far out in the ocean, turn out to be a most peculiar people. Each small community, each little farm or hamlet, is a hive-mind all of its own. Everyone lives inside everyone else's head, telepathically intimate with everyone's needs and quirks, a working, living, breathing entity in perfect harmony.
Except for Poldarn.
Along with his memory he's lost his capacity to read minds and be read by others. Like it or not he's a perpetual odd-man-out who can only look on in bewilderment at this seamless communal life and fumblingly try to enter it. What makes it worse is that he's 'heir apparent' to his grandfather's farm, and a man less suited to it would be hard to find. But he tries. He does try. He tries again and again and again. He does the best he can, doggedly, determinedly, struggling in the midst of a herd of inscrutable strangers, to fit in.
It's at once fascinating and horrifying to watch. Like witnessing a massive road accident happening in slow motion, seeing each impact, anticipating each new crash and explosion and frenzied scream, and being absolutely helpless to stop it.
Nothing that Poldarn does works out. He won't take responsibility where he should, he seizes it where he shouldn't. His questions are offensive, his ignorance worse. He's innocent, but no-one believes in his innocence, he's well-intentioned, but his decisions and actions turn into catastrophes one after another.
Lurking behind all the desperate manoeuvres and social disasters are three grotesque problems; Poldarn's missing past, his hideous future, his sinister identity.
What has Poldarn done? Why did he originally leave the Islands? Was it under a cloud? You bet it was! And will the consequences come back to bite him on the arse? Are you kidding? Of course they will! And Parker lets the hammer dangle over his hapless protagonist for over 500 pages before bringing it down with a meaty thud, right between the eyes.
What will Poldarn do? His dreams, elliptical, revelatory, prophetic, open up whole new vistas of past error and future calamity. Whether it's abandoning people in burning houses, or being slowly tortured to death for the entertainment of a pack of debauched aristocrats, there are no comforting portents to be found.
Who is Poldarn? Is he just a ne'er-do-well, black sheep, with homicidal reflexes and a malfunctioning memory? Is he the mortal extension of Poldarn the God, harbinger of the world's doom, destroyer of empires? Or is he, in some utterly quixotic fashion, a human reflection of the volcano looming over his farm which periodically inundates the local scenery with layers of smouldering ash and streams of blazing lava? (He certainly has the same general effect on the lives of the people around him...)
Parker has woven together one of the densest plot-lines, and most intriguing sets of conundrums and metaphors that the fantasy genre has ever seen. It's like a Chinese puzzle box, or a set of nested Russian dolls - or both at once! One could talk about the biting satire on Religion which parades an Order of Monks who seek their experience of the divine in the moment between drawing a sword and cutting someone's throat, or the great wheel of perfectly reflecting past and future follies, errors and atrocities, or the near-obsessional mirror held up to human society as shown by the behaviour of a flock of crows...
At times, it has to be acknowledged, the prose can grow over-heavy. There are lengthy passages of metaphorical/philosophical rumination, but the lurking ferment of disaster, and the sheer weight of sinister expectation is enough to draw the reader on. Then again, you have to wonder after awhile where the cruelty that Parker lavishes on his 'hero' is going to end, and whether you can stomach much more of this 'fly-on-the-end-of-pin' treatment. Comparisons with Lot spring to mind as the poor bastard reels back from yet another blindsided blow of fate.
Well, you may have to swallow your gorge at certain points, but the strength and gruesome freshness of Parker's work carry the day. Viciously elegant writing, comedy that's black as obsidian, tragedy straight from the classic Greek school; K. J. Parker has established a genuinely original voice in the genre. Few authors are so painful to read, none are more so, but the tale is utterly compelling, and twist as you might, there's no way to resist coming back for more.
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© Simeon Shoul 31 August 2002