Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Conclusion

Welcome back to the final entry in our reread of K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife. I’m going to use this final week to give all the final and definite answers to the book.

Ok, just kidding. But I thought I’d try to end with five extremely big thoughts, wrapping up the themes of the book and my own personal conclusions. Of course, by “wrap up,” I only mean the structured part of the reread. Please continue the discussion in the comments—the fun never needs to end!

Conclusion: “Never back down, never turn your back on a friend.”

1. The Mavorelleon

A young boy, Spot, is born in an adorably remote Mavortine village. He grows up with two good friends (Melsuntha—a gangly young girl that always has a crush on him—and Chiffy, a wise-cracking pal who never takes anything seriously) and maybe a wise old man figure that tells him how important he is.

As he hits his teens, Spot discovers he’s something special. He begins to unite the warring villages, wins some obscure contest, fights a battle or two, fulfils a prophecy or two about being a light in the darkness against the coming evil.

The evil empire invades. Vesani sorcerers control legions of blood-thirsty Hus cavalry and grim Cazar infantry. The Vesani tear through the country with no explanation whatsoever. The typical rules of Mavortine chivalry are ignored: the Vesani forces don’t act with honor, instead unleashing their hideous war machines and devastating the Mavortine knights. Under Spot’s leadership, the Mavortine Resistance fights hit-and-run tactics, but they’re outgunned—David vs Goliath—forced to hide in their secret forest base (like Ewoks).

It turns out that Spot’s lost female friend, Melsuntha, is now the concubine of the Vesani Overlord—the sorcerer-king known only as “The Magnificent.” Spot appeals to her patriotism and her long-buried love for him, and convinces her to act as a spy. At considerable risk, she uncovers a story of The Magnificent’s earlier defeat, and sends Spot a message: find the Plague-Stone of Permia!

Spot and Chiffy sneak out of war-torn Mavortis and travel across the world, having all sorts of adventures. They recover the Plague-Stone of Permia and return to Mavortis just in time—the empire has discovered the forest base and destroyed the Resistance.

Spot is ready to sacrifice himself to activate the Plague-Stone, but Chiffy knocks him out and takes his place. It is a beautiful, tragic thing. The Plague-Stone slays the Vesani forces, including the Vesani general and the Magnificent’s apprentice. Mavortis is freed of the evil invaders!

Back in his crumbling fortress, The Magnificent discovers Melsuntha’s treason but she appeals to the tiny spark of humanity that remains within his lich-like body, and he spares her life. Melsuntha treks back to Mavortis, where she and Spot rebuild their kingdom and start a new golden age. Their first child is named after Chiffy.

1b. The Mavorelleon Revisited

I think one of the reasons I like The Folding Knife so much is that it can so easily be turned on its head. This could be the story of the bad guys, the evil empire. It can be the story of the talented bureaucrat in the world of Chosen Ones and fate (imagine, for example, what it would be like to be the steward of Minas Tirith—you do a damn good job of the near-impossible task of holding together the last great nation and, whammo, some lunatic hillbilly sails out of the woods and takes the corner office because he’s got a “better bloodline.” Epic fantasy is nepotism.)

It can even be the story of good guys—Basso and Bassano—trying to negotiate their way to success in a world where fate and destiny are both accepted concepts. The one thing The Folding Knife most definitely isn’t is a traditional objectivist Chosen One narrative. Unless, of course, you change the point of view…

2. Bassano kind of sucks.

“Kind of sucks” is a literary term, first coined for Mr. Wickham (1813). And, granted, my dislike for Bassano is almost entirely reactionary: Basso spends so much time admiring Bassano, I’m essentially required to hate him. A bit hipster, I know—“I liked Bassano before he was a prince”). Yet, is the reader supposed to feel that reaction? Basso is alone in his lavish praise for Bassano (whom everyone else kind of likes, but they’re generally just kind of fine with him).

The lesson is again, I think, about the nature of both Chosen Ones (fantasy) and Great Men (history). We, like Basso, can create ideals, but people will never be able to match them. Even Good Prince Bassano has to poop (which he does in the Mavortine woods) and/or bails out rapists and/or hides in his office and/or gets lost in the forest.

There’s also a lesson here about the corrupting nature of power. To be completely frank, Bassano’s rather emo descent into moral relativism is one of the least interesting parts of The Folding Knife for me. Again, this may be intentional: we read about Bassano writing about things that he’s seen—the reader is about as removed from events as is possible. By contrast, Basso’s moral wibbling generally follows on from events that we “see.” He may have his own emo moments, but at least we can share in them.

3. Meanwhile in 2010.

I’m always a little dubious about trying to pinpoint cultural relevance because we have no idea when Parker actually wrote The Folding Knife, we only know when it was published. Similarly, we don’t even know when it was commissioned—the publication cycle could’ve been six months or four years. Regardless, looking at the context when The Folding Knife hit the shelves: this is a fantasy featuring a banker, and, lets be honest, bankers were only slightly more popular than cane toads in 2010.

Similarly, the crux of The Folding Knife is Basso’s imperial ambitions: his desire to strip mine Mavortis, and trade “enlightened government” for their natural resources and cheap labor. That’s our hero, but the parallels with the war in Iraq are uncanny.

I’m even more dubious about ascribing authorial intent, but, in this case, the author has declared (in multiple interviews) a devotion to two different themes:

  • studying violence—“I study war the way a doctor does disease” (Subterranean)
  • “Why do good people do bad things; how come bad people often do, or try to do, good things” (Writing Raw)

Given that, it becomes easy to see The Folding Knife as a secondary world exploration of the Iraq War. Were the Anglo-American Powers that Be good people doing a bad thing? Or bad people trying to do a good thing? And what are the reasons—the justifications—that can lead to violence at that scale? I certainly don’t see The Folding Knife as a defense of the war, but it does tackle the Herculean task of trying to understand it.

I suppose there’s one interpretation that Basso’s ruthless capitalism is in the public interest, etc., etc., but, for me, the lesson is much to the contrary: Basso has every possible advantage (wealth, upbringing, technological superiority, education, raw talent), but the system of the world is still too complex for him. Those same factors that give him an edge also undermine him: he’s too arrogant, too dismissive of others; he assumes that what he already knows is all he needs to know. Similarly, Basso conflates might and right—because he can do things, he believes he’s justified in doing them.

4. “There’s always another reason.”

That’ll be the quote on my Basso coffee mug. (That or, “People are the best weapons.”) Over and above the narrow context of 2010, The Folding Knife tackles, well, all of history—or, more precisely, historiography. Parker’s narrative structure picks apart the traditional, impersonal way that we record events. Time and time again, we’re given the official recitation of events with allusions to the historical record—House documents and the like. Then, Parker pulls back the curtain and, through conversations with Basso, we learn the unofficial recitation of events. It is the “Great Man” theory of history, with Basso as the prime mover.

Yet, invariably, there’s a second curtain: Basso doesn’t know his own reasons. He does what he does either as a reaction or as a compulsion that originates from the swampy interior of his subconscious. The reader is left to craft their own interpretation of the cause of events: we know what happened, but we may never know why.

5. The big mistake.

Bear with me here.

My natural instinct is to meta-game: to try and hunt down a mistake that’s appropriate for the book, rather than take the text at face value and then find a mistake in there.

First, one huge theme of The Folding Knife—and, indeed, much of Parker’s work—is the “butterfly effect” of small actions having vast, unknowable consequences. Parker likes to hide things in tiny, throwaway details. The Permian plague, for example. Because of this, I’m going to hazard a guess that the mistake is something that’s tiny, almost inconsequential. Something as tiny as “carrying the knife in his pocket” or “going home early one day” or “using the wrong courier.” A tiny decision with huge impact.

Secondly, a huge recurring theme is that of choice. And this is the trickiest: I think the mistake has to be something that Basso chose to do. “Such successes as I’ve enjoyed in my life have always come as a result of my having no choice” (115)—but we’re looking for the inversion: failures that came as a direct result of his independent action. Which wipes out many of my best contenders. For example, “falling in love with his [first] wife” was my first choice—it was something that Basso knew wasn’t in his best interest, and, in many ways, caused all the problems that followed. That said, “The one thing that had nothing to do with love is choice” (28). Certainly it was Basso’s mistake, but it was never within his control.

Thirdly, I think the mistake is something personal. This fits with the reasons within reasons theme of the book. Historians will look back, nod sagely and point at the war with Mavortis as Basso’s moment of failure—in fact, they’re already doing that by the end of the book. But, to Basso, the Mavortis was just a “thing”—he would’ve stopped the war for either Melsuntha or Bassano, for example. I think The Mistake that topples Basso has to be something that history would overlook, but we, the reader, understand is critical.

Fourth, and this is very much meta-gaming: the mistake needs to be early in the book. A big mistake that happens two-thirds in is too late to be consequential—we need the first flap of the butterfly’s wings long before then. Sending Bassano to danger can’t be the mistake because it is trumped by choosing Bassano as the heir which is trumped by choosing to take care of Bassano which is trumped by feeling the need to repay Lina which is trumped by killing Lina’s husband in the first place. Parker likes to reinforce the idea of working from first principles: we should look for the mistake in the early pages, when Basso is writing on a blank slate.

That said, what I don’t think was The Mistake was the murder of his wife and her lover. The latter was self-defense: it wasn’t a choice. And the former, although under Basso’s control (and certainly a bad thing), didn’t actually “go butterfly.” Basso’s sister was lost to him the instant he killed her husband: Lina would’ve hated Basso just as much if he’d let his wife live (possibly more). And Basso still would’ve loathed the twins, been obligated to Bassano, tried to create an Empire, etc.

Where’s that leave us?

Ready for this?

I think Basso’s mistake was walking away from the City. A tiny decision. An obvious thing to do, so obvious it feels inconsequential: like breathing. It is a personal decision, but not one to do with his family or friends or wife, but one that’s purely about Basso. And, this is meta-meta-gaming, the book is structured around it: both the prelude and the final pages have Basso riding off.

Why is this a mistake? This is the first and only time that Basso gives up. He fought the Empire, thieves, bankruptcy, the church, his sister… even the plague. Everything from abstract concepts to his own family, and each time he came up with a new, creative way to triumph. Everything great he’s done has been in adversity. Until now—when he choses to stop fighting.

Even more tragically, until this point, Basso has always been the hero of his own narrative. He has the ambition of handing the reins to Bassano some day, but Basso is clear that this is his story for now, but, by leaving, he’s recast himself as a sidekick. Basso has become Antigonus, the tutor, the wise old man—the slave.

Everything may have gone wrong and he may be truly and utterly screwed, but ultimately, Basso chooses to quit. Magnentius points this out to him, but Basso seems to know it already.

I may change my mind about this in ten minutes, but, for now, that’s my answer and I’m sticking to it. What do you think? What was Basso’s big (or little) defining moment?

The best deal I ever made.

Thanks to the editorial team at Tor.com for being such gracious hosts.

And, most of all, thank you—my fellow readers and re-readers—for taking part. You’ve all been friendly, extremely perceptive and entertaining companions over the past few months, as we’ve talked everything from Byzantine linguistics to high fantasy archetypes. Thanks again for making this so much fun for me and for one another.


Jared Shurin is off to find a new book.

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