Welcome back to the reread of K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife. Please join in as I go prodding about in the guts of this compact fantasy epic.
Previous entries (or entry, as the case may be) can be found in the index. The only spoilers in this post will be for the chapter under discussion, the prelude and the history of the Roman Empire (hint: it fell). Please keep discussion of future events out of the comments as not to ruin the fun for new readers.
Today’s entry covers the book’s first chapter… or the first eighteen years of Basso’s life. There’s also Latin involved and a guest appearance from author Sophia McDougall.
That’s quite a bit, so I’ll hop to it!
A heavily pregnant noblewoman is disturbed in her bedroom by a stranger. The intruder demands money, but the noblewoman distracts her with promises of food and clothes. The intruder is baffled, but rolls with it—when the noblewoman offers her medicine, she takes it, not realising it is poison.
In the excitement that follows, the noblewoman gives birth and, whammo, we have a protagonist: Bassianus Severus (we’ll call him Basso).
Skip to Basso’s teenage years. Aelius, the youngest captain in the City Watch, is forced to deal with the rather unusual situation of a child, Basso, beating up one of his sentries. It turns out that the soldier made a “lewd suggestion” at Basso’s older sister, and the teenager gave him a thumping. Aelius is as impressed by the kid’s chutzpah as he is disappointed in his own soldier’s martial ability.
Basso reveals, rather immodestly, that he’s the son of the Vesani Republic’s First Citizen. Aelius dismisses Basso, but on the way out, he smacks him over the ear with a stick. Basso agrees that was “fair” and staggers out. He and his sister argue a bit about how they’re going to hide the injury from their parents, but, as it turns out, they never even notice.
The next episode takes place six months later. The ringing in Basso’s ear hasn’t gone away and he’s deaf on that side. Basso’s father has lost both the election and a great deal of money. To raise capital, he has agreed to a marriage offer for Basso—apparently Placidia is also betrothed, but it is a “long-term job.”
Basso tries to avoid his berothel ceremony by making himself sick. His mom catches him, pours medicine in him (always a dodgy prospect, see above). At the ceremony, Basso’s bride is veiled. Upon seeing Basso, she stops, and her family have to push her up to the altar.
The betrothal lasts for four years. During that time, Basso learns from his cousin that his bride to be is “a bit of a handful,” and there are rumors connecting her with a servant and a boy from her local village. Basso’s cousin assures him that she’ll grow out of it, if she hasn’t already.
In the meantime, Basso’s father also buys a bank, and, despite his family’s concerns, it pays off handsomely. The Severus family are suddenly extremely wealthy. The betrothal, however, is not cancelled. A bit of prodding by Basso reveals that neither Placidia nor her mother know that she’s been betrothed as well.
The plot, she thickens.
The chapter ends with their wedding (counting on my fingers, I think that makes Basso eighteen). It isn’t the world’s most romantic occasion. Basso can’t hear anything, but fakes it. The ceremony is boring, and the reception is worse.
The only highlight is a chance encounter between Basso and his new wife, Cilia—who he doesn’t recognise because he’s never seen her without her veil. They introduce themselves to one another for the first time. Much to his surprise, they get along.
Their wedding night is awkward—Basso has no idea what to do and she does. She goes to sleep. Unable to fall asleep himself, Basso eventually leaves the bedroom to read a book.
Well, that’s a cheerful coming of age story, isn’t it?
The last two parts of the chapter are the most bittersweet. The moment between Basso and Cilia at the reception is genuinely touching. But, once in the bedroom, there’s a division between them. Basso’s insecure—he apologises for his ignorance and his ugliness, and doesn’t believe her assurances that everything is fine.
The final sentences are a (rather painful) summary of their relationship: he doesn’t want to interrupt her sleep, so he sneaks to a dressing room to read (he even has to smuggle a lamp in with him). “The only thing that had nothing to with love was choice,” Basso muses at one point. Spending the night in a closet so he doesn’t disturb Celia is one tiny example of this precept in action.
But Basso-Cilia isn’t the only relationship in this chapter. We’re also introduced to the overshadowing figure of Basso’s father—a man more lucky than smart, a sort of whirlwind of blind ambition. Basso learns from his father, but not in any conventional sense—he analyses his father’s tactics, eavesdrops on his schemes and parses his motivation with Placidia.
Oddly, Aelius is perhaps more of a traditional father-mentor figure—even if he does only feature for a few pages. If anything, by whomping Basso with a stick, Aelius does Basso the credit of treating him as an equal.
The only person Basso can really count on as a friend is his sister. The two are allies, clinging to one another while swirling about in the maelstrom of their father’s life. I don’t think Basso’s parents are wicked people, they’re just removed—he’s ambitious and she’s a non-entity. We’re given multiple examples of how they view their children merely as assets, especially throughout the betrothal process(es).
Basso and Placidia look after one another: he defends her honour (somewhat unnecessarily), she helps him look for an escape from his betrothal (to no result). But, hey, at least they’re trying….
The use of proper names in The Folding Knife can be confusing, and not just because everyone has formal and informal versions of their (vaguely Latinate) names.
Placidia is not actually referred to by name until page 25, in a conversation that takes place between Basso and his mother about her betrothal. In this context, Basso, who names her, is referring to her as a person. In previous mentions, where she’s just “his sister,” Placidia’s more of an abstract or concept. For example, when Basso is brought in front of Aelius, Placidia doesn’t matter—she’s the catalyst for the incident, but as far as Basso and Aelius are concerned, they’ve moved beyond that, and the matter to be settled is one of principle—the “relationship between civil and military authorities.”
Celia says her own name wrong at the wedding ceremony; she’s nervous, but it also shows how she wishes it were happening to someone else. This is after she goes unnamed (at least, as far as we are concerned) throughout the entire four year betrothal. Even when Basso is gossiping about her, Celia’s a “she,” again, an abstract figure—“that woman to which he will be married.”
It isn’t until Basso and Celia meet face to face at the reception, that we learn her name and she becomes a person. Celia initially tries to introduce herself formally, but Basso insists on knowing her true name, which she eventually provides.
The priest gets Basso’s name wrong during the betrothal. Basso’s full name is Bassianus Arcadius Severus, but is officially betrothed as “Bassianus Severus Arcadius.” Basso optimistically questions whether this makes the betrothal illegal, but his hopes are quickly squashed.
I wondered if there was something more to the naming blunder, but my Latin is hideous. Fortunately, Sophia McDougall, author of the wonderful Romanitas series, stepped in to save the day:
Mixing up the second and third part of the name could potentially create a bit of confusion as to what family he comes from. The nomen (the second one) is theoretically the important, hereditary bit, the “surname.” In practice it’s more complicated than that. The order is Praenomen, Nomen, Cognomen.
WAY WAY back in the day, things would’ve been simple—your praenomen would be Jared and your nomen Shurin and that would be it. Except that there were only about 20 praenomina to choose from and (mostly) only your family would use your praenomen. So it would be really hard to tell the men in your family apart.
So they started add in cognomina—nicknames, at first—as a sort of additional personal name to tell individuals apart. But then cognomina started getting inherited too, (to preserve any status attached and tell family branches apart) , and it effectively became another family name. So they started adding Agnomina (basically, Cognomen 2.0).
But then sometimes they’d inherit those too. Hence Marcus’s dad is Tertius Novius Faustus Leo (the last one being being given to him in recognition of his individual achievements), but Marcus can use the name too because: status! [Marcus is one of the protagonists in Romanitas, and really, you should read it.]
And then people started having names that commemorated the maternal as well as the paternal lines of the family, and if you were a slave you might take your master’s name or a form thereof on emancipation.
So eventually people had endless strings of names and it’s basically a toss-up which one they actually went by and it was all a lot looser and more complicated. (Although also kind of less complicated—just call yourself whatever, who cares?)
Now “Bassianus Arcadius Severus” is a bit odd-looking as a Roman name. Because 1) Bassianus is NOT a classical Roman praenomen. It’s an agnomen—at least, it started off as one. And 2) “Severus” sounds much more like a cognomen than a nomen. And 3) I think Arcadius started off as a cognomen and could be either?
So, potentially that’s three cognomina/agnomina. So s/he might have got it a bit wrong, or s/he might be implying that his actual name is a long string of extra cognomina and no one bothers with all of it, and Bassianus is actually the family name? Or s/he might be deriving from the late Empire when it’s all a mess anyway.
Bassianus means “of/somehow associated with Bassus” ( “my mother/grandmother’s/my adoptive family are the Bassi”—“my/my grandfather’s/somebody’s slaveowner was Bassus” ). Bassus means “plump.” Severus means exactly what you’d expect, “Severe, harsh.” Arcadius just means “Of Arcadia.”
So that’s a really long way to say “no, not really.”
Well, worth a shot, right?
A couple bitty things:
Again, we have KJ Parker mucking about with the structure. The first line of the chapter is a spoiler: “On the morning of the day when Basso (Bassianus Severus, the future First Citizen) was born…” Arguably, this is also a tip of the hat to I, Claudius, which begins with Claudius explaining that the purpose of his book is to show how he got caught up in the “golden predicament” of leading an Empire. More on Clau-Clau-Claudius and his relevance next week.
The foreign intruder who bothers Basso’s mother is a Mavortine. The Mavortines are foreigners, they show up in the Vesani Republic as migrant workers and manual labour. They’re described in passing as blonde and blue-eyed. This is the only reference to skin colour (and, by extension, race) in the entire book, but it is worth noting. We get some idea of what our characters look like (especially Basso), but never in a way that identifies their skin colour. But this one line categorically excludes them from fitting the Hollywood-Aryan mould. Which is pretty nifty.
There are a few bugs in this chapter. Literal, not, er, technological. Basso stares at a spider all throughout his wedding, only to have Celia compare her veil to one at the reception. He also squashes a wasp with his bare hands in front of Placidia, a talent he’s proud of but it disgusts her.
Our knife has an origin story—or, at least, part of one. We never learn how a knife that should belong to a “prosperous clerk” gets into the hand of the Mavortine woman, but we do at least now learn how it gets to Basso.
What happens with Placidia’s “long-term” betrothal? Is a bank a worthwhile investment or will the Severus family need a bailout or two? How’s this marriage thing going to work anyway? What would Robert Graves think about all this?
All this and more next week.
With each chapter, I’m going to pull out all some stuff and tack it here, at the end of the blog post. The world itself doesn’t actually matter that much in The Folding Knife—if anything, that detail is deliberately absent.
That said, with Parker’s latest few books, it has been made clear that all the author’s books are set in the same world. So, for the sake of a Wiki that doesn’t exist, let’s pull out all the persons, places, things and fluff. If you spot them in any of Parker’s other work, drop a note in the comments—let’s see what connections we can find.
- Mavortine (a people—blonde, blue eyed; seasonal, migrant workers to the city, presumably they come from Mavortia? Mavortina? Mavort? Navratilova?!)
- Sigaea (another place, seeming far away)
- Strait of Essedine—the Vesani Republic (where this is set)—a tantilising reference to the Imperial court—although which Empire?
Jared Shurin did not do well in Latin.