Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Four

Chapter Four. War. Friendship. Family. Empire. Cow poop. Is it fair to say this is my favourite chapter yet? I think it is.

Let’s get into it.

Chapter 4: “The man who wins at the end is the man who can get the most out of defeat”

Basso surprises everyone by declaring war on the Kingdom of Auxentia. And by “everyone,” he baffles everyone: the House, his cabinet, Bassano, the Vesani people and even Aelius (who will have to wage said war).

Aelius joins Basso at his house, and the two talk war stuff. Aelius leaves to do his General thing. Bassano wanders in. He and Basso talk about the war, but mostly about Bassano’s future.

Bassano’s mother wants him to join the Church. He would rather follow in Basso’s footsteps at the Bank. Basso refuses to let him and gives him some uncle-ly advice. The two call it a draw: Bassano won’t join the Church, but he won’t join the Bank either.

Basso’s son Festo has a crush on the snake-girl of the Blues’ (the most popular Vesani racing team). It isn’t a serious thing, but he seems to keep wandering into fights.

Aelius sails off to war with instructions to capture a bit of well-forested land and call it a victory. Then they can all go home. Instead, Aelius runs into a lot of Auxentine ships and, when luck turns against him, gets hammered. He limps into the Auxentine forests and sets up camp.

Basso is urged to call the battle a victory. He chooses the opposite tack, and makes a speech emphasizing how the Vesani just got their asses handed to them. He doubles down, sends a huge number of reinforcements and tells Aelius to conquer Perigouna (the second-largest city of Auxentia, never before taken, etc.)

The Auxentines smirk behind their indefensible walls while Aelius leads a masterclass in moving 40,000 men across hostile terrain. He besieges Perigouna, and the Auxentines giggle as they enjoy their well-fortified, well-provisioned city. Aelius pens up all the cows he can find (a lot of them) by the source of the city’s aqueduct. When the people of Perigouna start dying of disgusting cow-poop related ailments, they have no choice but to surrender. /end giggling

Basso is savouring his victory when Antigonous breaks some bad news to him: he’s dying. He’s 87 and the doctor gives him six months to live. They discuss practicalities for a while. Basso ends the chapter sitting in the dark, in a completely empty room.

Wow.

Thank god for that last scene, right? Else this chapter may have been a positive one (unless you’re an Auxentine). 

The final moments of Chapter Four are about as touching a moment as we’ve seen. Basso has, as far as we know, three friends: Bassano, Aelius and Antigonous. He has the twins, who he says he loves, but doesn’t have much to do with. And he has Lina, who he loves more than anyone else in the world, but who can’t stand him. Basso’s certainly not the warmest person in the world, but upon reading his reaction to Antigonous’s news, it is clear he’s no heartless monster.

Basso from the outside

This chapter is unusual in that we have passages from someone else’s point of view. Previously, we’ve alternated from a tight focus on Basso to a more impersonal, historical view. But with Basso tucked away in the Vesani Republic, the narration follows Aelius—ostensibly to get a view of the Auxentine action. This mostly involves staring at maps and going “ah-HA!”

But, we also follow Aelius before he goes to war. He’s informed by Basso’s Cabinet that he’s about to lead a campaign against the Auxentines. So he walks over to Chez Basso to see exactly what is going on. Aelius, as we’re frequently reminded, isn’t a Vesani citizen—even though he’s lived there for most of his life, he’s still an outsider.

The pages with Aelius give us the city as he sees it—the monuments, the people, the markets—all the stuff that Basso a) takes for granted and b) never sees, because he’s busy running the world.

We also see Basso from Aelius’s point of view. The Severus house is… ridiculous. Basso’s office has more lavish, more spectacular religious artwork than the local cathedral (and is about the same size). The gates are ten feet high. The chair is made out of some exotic animal. The windows are stained glass. The cookies are in a silver box. Etc. Etc.

We never get this from Basso, because, again, it is something he takes for granted. But from an external point of view: this dude is loaded.

Aelius’s visit also comes with a cheeky little reference to his first visit to the Severus household (the night of the murders). Last time, he came through the main gate and had to threaten a porter… and then left by the kitchens. This time he comes through the side gate, like a friend.

In previous chapters (and, indeed, in the rest of this chapter), we continue to get Basso through his own eyes and through the lens of history. But interludes like this allow us to see what Basso’s contemporaries make of him as well. Aelius interacts with Basso personally (as a friend) and professionally (as his Commander in Chief). And his casual stroll through the city also demonstrates Basso’s impact on the rest of the Vesani as well. Basso’s not living in a vacuum.

Why did we go to war?

Aelius aside, this chapter does oscillate between the now-familiar historical/personal points of view. To some degree, this entire chapter is an examination of a single decision—the war with Auxentia. But despite a lot of discussion, do we ever get an answer?

Well, we get a lot of possible answers… given my compulsive need to make charts, I’ve chucked them all out here and categorised them on two axes.

First, we have our personal-historical axis. Explained above and in the recap for Chapter Three.

Second, we have action-reaction. Basso notes this himself in two places—when he notes the difference between “causing a fight” and “starting one” (109), and later when he talks about things happening as a matter of luck.

Here’s how it looks:

Why are we fighting Auxentia today

Why are we fighting Auxentia today?

Are we any closer to an answer? I suspect the closest to the truth is “I don’t know”—although, in a way, that’s still empowering Basso as a “Great Man” of history.

His confession that he had “no choice” is the flip side of that particular coin, as it is shows Basso as a victim (beneficiary?) of “luck,” rather than an active agent of his own fate.

The role of “luck” (other fantasies would probably call it “destiny”) is something we’ll definitely be revisiting a lot throughout The Folding Knife.

Bits:

Aelius has a knife too! A “pruning knife” (94). Interesting that the one soldier in the book has the least martial knife.

“with Zeno’s Arch dead ahead, he stopped” (95). Because, according to Zeno, you can never actually reach the Arch. 

Aelius notes that the glass in Basso’s study is yellow (99)

Bassano has started drinking—to the point where Basso stops him. This is a reversal from the first time they met, when Bassano said that “wine gives me a headache” (83). We know that Bassano has a tendency to pick up behaviours (he’s got that hair flip the first time they talk). I suspect his drinking also comes out of boredom. Bassano confesses as much—he’s looking for something to do.

Aelius drinks “resinated black wine,” his secret vice—this is one of the many gifts Basso gives him as he sets out. As we discover repeatedly, Basso gives really peculiar gifts. Aelius gets the wine (helpful, but really a bit of a “I SEE YOU”), a membership in the Blues (amazing, but completely unwanted) and a book (unwanted, but, in the long run, completely invaluable).

The Gazetteer:

With each chapter, I’m going to pull out the world-building stuff and tack it here, at the end of the post. If you spot references to these things in other KJ Parker books or stories, please say so in the comments!

  • Auxentia: another Kingdom, nearby Opoion promontory: part of the above
  • Perigouna: second city of the above
  • Mannerist: an artistic/philosophical movement, referenced a lot in Parker’s books; here in terms of some of Basso’s paintings
  • The Eastern Empire: another reference to a vast (historical) presence; in this case, they’re the ones that built Perigouna’s enormous aqueduct (we hear from them again; the tricky thing is we’ve also heard of an “Empire”—how are they related?)
  • Aram Chantat: a people or tribe, fought in the past by the Auxentines
  • Lucanus: someone famous; the Vesani have a monument named after him
  • Bryzes of the Studium: ancient scholar
  • Lydus: leader/general of the Auxentines in the past, fought the above
  • Ariobarzanes: an Emperor (or extremely senior official) of the Empire (Eastern?!) in the past
  • Be’man Perdut: another people or tribe; provide cavalry to Aelius
  • Dramisene: Antigonous’s home country/region
  • Badonicus: famous artist from a previous era
  • Garrhine Strait: water, between the Vesani and Auxentia

Next week’s chapter is all about legacy. Obviously the best way to secure it is with a Tor.com reread. If that’s not available, start a war.


Jared Shurin has never once invaded a foreign power. Unless you include moving overseas, in which case, he did do that once. No wait, twice. But it was to the same place. Does that count? He’d be a terrible empire.

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