Mar 29 2013 9:00am

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Four

The Folding Knife Reread Chapter Four K.J. Parker

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.


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

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.


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 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.

Rereading K.J. Parker's The Folding Knife: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Dominic Stevens
1. Dominic Stevens
Just realised the Aram Chantat 'blueskins' are the merceneries hired by Permia in Sharps to fight their war against Schleria. What an interesting world KJ Parker is building! Would love to see a map of it!

Also Aelius' tactical masterstroke against Perigouna forshadows the dramatic conclusion to the novel. Basso isn't infallible in that he isn't able to anticipate that one.

In fact there is foreshadowing as well in that Basso gets fortunate in his win against Auxentia, and nearly has a humiliating defeat at sea which would have curtailed his ambitions right there, but doesn't seem to learn from it. He's like a middle aged man who has a stroke, recovers, and then goes back to eating fatty breakfasts, knocking back wine and smoking. Basso is unable to accept that he is merely mortal, and has a finite amount of luck.
S Cooper
2. SPC
I think as he sees it, he's not counting on luck. His example of that was his father, and he's different. He plans and controls far more than his father ever did, and if he gets lucky along the way and things turn out better, that's great. (I'm not finished with the book yet, only chapter 14)
Dominic Stevens
3. Down with the optimates
So deep question: in Sharps there are clearly two empires, eastern and western. Folding Knife seems only to refer to an Eastern Empire, and in fact when Basso presents Bassano with the grand master plan Bassano's response is that Basso wants to make him Emperor of the West, implying that there is no such person at the time. What does that mean?
Dominic Stevens
4. Dominic Stevens
@SPC Definitely Basso is not relying on 'blind luck' like his father; he after all is a chess player. He has a strategy, and has lots of fail safes built in. But sadly everything in life needs a bit of luck; he had sheer bad luck in the navel 'defeat' but was incredibly fortunate that he has a tactical genius Aelius leading his forces who is capable of inspired plans. And yes, this isn't pure luck as Basso has the awareness that Aelius was capable of such inspired genius, and promoted him accordingly, but what if the Auxentines had stockpiled water just in case the water coming down from the mountains was compromised?

I won't say anymore as you haven't finished, but will be interesting to see your thoughts when you have. I finished last night, and I think this is the best book I've read in the past six months (and I read about a book a week.)

@DownwithOptimates I've only read Sharps and Folding Knife so can't comment, but did strike me too.
Jared Shurin
5. Jared_Shurin
@Optimates (love the name): (Watch out, the master plan discussion is a big spoilery!) But that's a really good point - the various Empires are definitely some sort of big KJ Parker world-buildingy thing. There's an Empire in the Engineer trilogy as well, I'm not sure which that would be... I'd love to piece together how the geography works together, but I think the really interesting question is the chronology. It would be really cool (and entirely possible) if The Folding Knife, for example, happened a long way before (or after) the others... dizzying, isn't it?

OR, actually, the other way around... Perigouna was built 900 years before, at the "height of the Eastern Empire". In Sharps, the Eastern Empire is just starting its decline - what if The Folding Knife takes place hundreds of years later?

@Dom: I think the Blueskins and the Aram Chantat were the mercenaries on the opposite sides of Sharps (I'm only remembering the end of that one too...) - I *think* the Aram Chantat might be in the Engineer trilogy as well, but I'd need to check. (Which is dangerous, as six hours later, I'll be rereading it all...)

Antigonus and Basso have that very same luck discussion in this chapter - is he pushing his luck or "exercising it"?
Christophe Van Tilborg
6. Baalmond
I'll try to see what I remember as well:

Perigouna: MAYBE related to the Perimadeia of the fencer trilogy. Very Greek sounding name, alas, I don't know Greek.

Mannerist: Mannerism is an actual art style. The more well-known name for it is "baroque." though, I've heard the argument that mannerism is more decadent baroque. Anyway, I think it's the only art style I ever hear mentioned by Parker, except for the iconography that exists in one of her short stories.

The Eastern Empire: There is also an "Empire" in the Fencer trilogy. Sounds like it derives inspiration from the byzantine empire.

Aram Chantat: I can confirm they are part of the Cure Hardy in engineer... Yeah, page 295 of devices and desires. They are mentioned as enemies of other sects (Biau Votz and Lauzeta) (and as being close to civitas Eremiae) . I can also say that the sect names seem to have Latin/ french root words as if pronounced by a German or Pole.

Found at page 303 of devices and desires: Aram Chantat means "Voices raised in song." I think of the French/ Latin link, because "to sing" is "Chanter/ Canere."
(Also, there's a tribe called "Biau Votz" which is like the French "Beau Voix" or Latin "(Pulcheria/Bella) Vox." And a tribe named Flos Glaia which means "meadow Flowers" and the Latin word for "flower" is "Flos.")
Joris Meijer
7. jtmeijer
The racing teams and corresponding social clubs are again something I associate with Rome and Byzantium, although in the latter case only the blues and greens remained if I remember correctly.

In contrast the difficulty of becoming a citizen is something I associate with the Classical Greek city states, and Athens specifically. Perhaps it was also a feature of early medieval Italian city-states (or cities in general at the time), does someone know more?
Christophe Van Tilborg
8. Baalmond
Ancient Rome only awarded citizenship to inhabitants of a city as a privilege. And only people with Roman parents were considered Roman, otherwise.
Joris Meijer
9. jtmeijer
I had the impression that Rome was prone to give individuals citizenship on merit/as a bribe. And probably less likely as well to hand power over to non-citizens (until the Empire). But I think the emphasis on the special status of citizenship is something more cities had in common.
Jared Shurin
10. Jared_Shurin
In a spoiler-free way, we've got a small discussion of citizenship in the next chapter and then there's a lot about it in Chapter Seven. I may do a little studying on Roman citizenship laws over the next couple weeks!
Joris Meijer
11. jtmeijer
I have to say I am following this reread from memory, so I will have forgotten details and exact locations where things were discussed. I'll try to keep comments spoiler free.
Merchanter Pride
12. MerchanterPride
Although, re: the discussion of chronology, in Sharps the Aram Chantat chieftan offers Perceptuus "a passable Vesani white," and the fencers definitely refer to Vesani style at some point, so Vesani is a thing. Whether or not its an independent republic in Sharps is definitely completely open for debate. I agree that the relationship between Folding Knife and Sharps, for example, has to be an extremely chronologically distant one; the Eastern Empire in Folding Knife feels decadent and ancient, while in Sharps it feels much more youthful, so that's my instinct about how they relate. Though very hard to say of course, Parker is so good at hiding these things.

Also The Company is perplexing. What government was A Company fighting for, and against whom? Did it take place much in the past or much in the future? The military technology seems to be relatively consistent throughout, the Hammer notwithstanding.
Dominic Stevens
13. Robins_books
These four chapters are all I've read of Parker's work, so I have no outside frame of reference, but perhaps Basso could be discovering that having an ideology (not fighting) is fine until you are actually in power. I don't tend to think that politicans are all liars, only, when confronted with reality they find their preferred (promised) position untenable. In this case, simply doing nothing may be weakening Basso's position in regional politics, so he feels obliged to act in some way.

I should say, I'm not sure I really think this, but I've been enjoying everyone else's contributions and wanted to join in!
Rowland Hills
14. TickTockTick
I've been reading a few of KJ Parker's short storis recently, such as "Amor Vincit Omnia", "Let Maps to Others", "One Little Room an Everywhere" and "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong" and I keep seeing the interconnections between things.

It really would be good to create a Wiki for some of the things which keep turning up, to see if we could spot more links.

Is there any way to do this through ToR, or does anyone have any suggestions for where to host such a site? A quick look suggests somewhere like might be appropriate, but I've not really researched it...
Jared Shurin
15. Jared_Shurin
The connections have definitely been getting stronger with recent works as well - especially the short stories...

I have to admit, a WikiKJPedia was kind of the ultimate goal out of the Gazetteer notes (and the ensuing comments). Even have purchased... Let me see if the very kind overlords have a scheme in place.
Dominic Stevens
16. Chuck Doyle
Lovely Story.....

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