Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Five

After the tumultuous events of the last chapter (when the Vesani began their first empire in a rain of fire and… er… poo), Basso and his chums get a well-earned break. Time to kick back and revel in the spoils of war.

Or something like that.

Let’s get stuck in.

Chapter Five: “You always have to attack, no matter what happens.”

Aelius returns in triumph—although the actual triumph (in the parading through the city sense) isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Aelius is also a bit stressed. He’s now known as “General Cowshit” (snigger) and he’s stuck with the knowledge that he killed thousands upon thousands of people in a really foul way. Biological warfare is not conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Basso meets with Tragazes—we heard about him the last chapter, as Antigonous’s possible replacement. Tragazes is very big and very, very, very boring. He has a chat with Basso about debt and finance and a currency crisis, and makes them all sound… well… dull. Basso sets up a trial period for Bassano at the Bank, working under Tragazes.

…But that plot (intended to discourage Bassano) fails. Bassano has already agreed to join the Church. He has one last dinner with Basso (Basso and Bassano eat bass). Bassano also lets slip that his mother, Lina, is getting remarried… to Basso’s biggest rival, Olybrias.

Lina visits Basso the next day and the two do a bit of “negotating.” Lina will break off the engagement if Basso fulfills a set of conditions, not least of which is get married himself. Basso gives in.

Basso, in a surprisingly human reaction, goes out on the lash. Dismissing his bodyguards, he heads down to a seedy bar and drinks until he can’t stand. He has an enlightening conversation with a fellow patron, in which he learns that he’s known as “Basso the Magnificent.” This cheers him up no end.

Things start to look up from there. Basso apprentices the twins at the Bank. Aelius becomes a citizen. And, in a sweet little moment, Bassano writes Basso (with some subterfuge) to say hi.

After the full-on war of the previous chapter, this feels a little quieter. But all the Auxentine armies couldn’t thwart Basso as thoroughly as Lina does.

…and they lived happily ever after!

Call me crazy, but we actually end on a high note. Basso’s pretty well pummeled through the entire chapter. His nephew is taken from him, his life is uprooted, his sons are disappointing, his friends are dying (Antigonous) or upset (Aelius), his legacy is uncertain, etc. etc.

But Bassano’s letter at the end leaves the reader with—dare I say it—a bit of a warm fuzzy feeling. Basso has a friend! Someone that actually misses him! Bassano’s even willing to do tricky things with figs and subterfuge to write him! Isn’t that sweet? Perhaps the most genuinely heart-warming moment is when Bassano asks for money. Not because he can spend it, but because it comforts him to look at it… why? I suspect this connects with something we learn earlier in the chapter: Basso’s face is on all the coins.

…but on the whole: “ow”

Basso gets to see his sister again—the person he loves most in the world—but it doesn’t go well. Lina is threatening to remarry Basso’s biggest rival, Olybrias. In order to prevent said marriage he has to a) give up Bassano, b) put Bassano’s money in trust with the church, c) remarry and d) bequeath everything to his children from his new marriage (so the twins don’t get any of the Bank).

There’s a bit of back and forth—it is painfully clear that Basso is wrong-footed from the beginning. And Lina’s just better at this—possibly because she’s far more single-minded in her purpose. Still, it becomes obvious what’s happening when the encounter resolves. Lina didn’t even need to threaten Basso, he’d do anything to make her happy (or is it more a search for forgiveness). There are essentially three cruel blows in succession: Basso gives in to Lina’s terms (ouch), Basso confesses that he would do anything for her and she didn’t need to threaten (ouch ouch) and Lina makes it obvious that she knew that all along and she really just quite likes bullying him and she’ll continue to do so forever (ouch-cubed).

Which leads to a greater narrative realisation. Who is the actual villain of the piece? It ain’t Olybrias or any member of the Opposition—we’ve never even learned their names until now. Basso’s business rivals are speed-bumps. There’s sort of an abstract conflict that’s been introduced with the idea of empire: Basso (the Vesani) vs the world. Certainly we get more of this later, but there’s never the sort of looming threat of an outside force.

Which leaves us two viable options:

Lina: In the narrative sense, she’s got villain written all over her. We’ve known her since the beginning, there’s a clear conflict between them, she’s got the stated objective of beating Basso into the ground.

But… the conflict between them is awkwardly one-sided, and it doesn’t feel like they’re fighting as much as blundering along in the same direction. Similarly, Basso doesn’t have any hostile feelings towards her. And Lina’s sentiments, given we know the full story, are somewhat justifiable. Maybe not fully rational, but it is still easy to empathise.

Basso: Not really a twist here. Basso is pretty clearly set up as his own worst enemy. The cover blurb sets that up—it is his mistake that dooms him, undone by his own actions. Moreover, as we’ve seen, The Folding Knife is all about Basso—inspecting him from every angle. There’s no one else set up with that kind of stature; no one that can actually challenge him as an equal. Without that sort of threat, there’s no viable villain. Even Lina is only able to challenge him because he lets her….

…which leads us back to Lina. Because, if there’s one thing we’re learning, it is that motives are unclear and legacy is uncertain. If we didn’t know that Basso “let” Lina “win,” would it affect how we view her stature? Her impact is certainly impressive.

Speaking of legacy

One more perspective on Basso thrown into the mix—the guy off the street.

We get this in three ways:

  1. In this chapter’s great “Basso goes to the bar” scene, the drunken chap just unloads on Basso. Everyone hates him. He’s a murderer. Want to throw eggs at him. Etc.
  2. …but the same chap says that he’s known as “Basso the Magnificent.” And he has absolutely no reason to lie about that.
  3. Basso asks his advisors, but they only know unflattering (to say the least) nicknames. The impression here is that they’re simply out of touch.

No wonder Basso wakes up happy. The net result is that he’s already picked up one hell of a reputation. Not greatness, not power or wisdom, but magnificence—doing something so grand as to take the breath away. Well, for better or for worse, it is certainly accurate.

Bits:

The knife is back! Ironically, he’s even warned that it is a deadly weapon… while writing someone’s name in his shoe.

Booze everywhere. It is nice to learn that Aelius’s addiction—resinated wine—isn’t something dodgy, it is just… cheap. Basso at the bar is a great scene, as he converts his picture to drinks. Especially the posh wine, which is worth “the back of his head.” The only person not drinking? Bassano. He’s clearly taken Basso’s message to heart.

Lina looks “as if she’d been stung by a wasp” (133). Possibly because Basso wasn’t there to kill them (24)?

“You always have to attack,” Lina accuses Basso (134). Interesting given his stated “violence is an admission of failure” philosophy—but not contradictory. It could be that Basso is always failing, and then failing at failing. He touches on that himself later—“I have the knack of doing things well, even if my intention is to do them badly” (147).

Who else loved Aelius putting the glass in the middle of the table? Great scene. He contemplates the value and the weight of his surroundings and then, his tiny, tiny little rebellion. Like a child.

Basso’s response is also interesting—he takes off his left glove and uses it as a coaster. His rebuke to Aelius doesn’t seem harsh, but, at the same time, he’s just revealed the hand that was scarred while committing a double murder. If this is intentional, it could be a reminder that he’s not someone to push—or that Aelius has tried to “cross” him in the past, and failed. (It is also interesting because it reveals that Basso is wearing gloves indoors to hide the scar.)

Basso continues to give double-edged gifts. Poor Aelius, right? He gets a traditional victory celebration… which involves being marched through the city with a noose on his neck. Later he gets citizenship, an invaluable prize that actually has no value for him.

The separation between military and civil authority is astoundingly detailed. In an earlier chapter, we learned that Basso appointed Aelius because he wouldn’t lead some sort of military coup. In this chapter, we have the whole custom reinforced over and over again. The ritual celebration is one example—a way of ostensibly rewarding military achievement, but really just humiliating the champion.

Aelius thinks soldiers should be “put away in a box,” something that Basso would clearly agree with. Yet, at the same time, we start to understand the thinking that could lead to a coup. Aelius has achieved everything he can achieve. Citizen, Commander-in-Chief… were he a less honourable man, politics (or dictatorship) could be in his future.

Finally—a lot about identity. Basso is mistaken for himself. He talks about having to fake being himself all the time. He has an offer to fall back on a career of being himself. I think we’ll get more into identity later (probably at the very, very end—as this conversation comes full circle to the final chapter), but one short conversation kicks up a lot of interesting material….

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!

  • Boezen Emperor: another political figure; doesn’t seem to be related to the Eastern/Western Empire
  • Much more on the religion of the Invincible Sun: “Pavian” is either a term for the religion or a sect thereof. There’s also a full rosary (136), including the lady Moon, seven silver stars and the Invincible Sun. I feel a bit archeological, but in this one description of a household object, we’ve learned more about the dominant religion of the Parkerverse than in all the other books combined! From Bassano’s letter we also learn about “the indivisibility of the Double Essence of Being.”
  • Badava: Someplace that young’uns go to party. The Spring Break destination of the Vesani.
  • Vinessus: Someplace else. (City? Region? Apparently they’re “pale.”)
  • Isacian: Description of a person from a place/region. Hazard a guess that there’s a marine element there, as Basso hires an Isacian chef purely to cook sea fish.
  • Labieni: One of the Vesani families.
  • Avitius: A text or author of said text. Historical.
  • Auge: Another region or place. A specialist comes from there to fix a statue.

Jared Shurin digs that wacky Parker style.

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