Fri
Apr 26 2013 9:00am

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Eight

The Folding Knife by K.J. Parker Reread Chapter 8

Last week, Basso got romantic. Or at least made vaguely marital noises. But now that the Vesani Republic’s most eligible bachelor is safely engaged, what’s next on the horizon?

This week’s chapter is another sedate one, but, really, everything’s just going so very well….

Chapter Eight: Lemon and whitebait

The chapter begins with a follow-up to the “currency crisis” of Chapter Six. At the time, Basso increased the purity of the Vesani nomisma—mostly to annoy the Optimate-controlled finance committtoree. As a result, Vesani currency has become the hottest buy in town (regionally speaking).

Everyone—the Auxentines, the Sclerians, etc—all ship their coins to the Vesani Republic to be melted down and reminted as nomisma. Basso explains the process to Melsuntha and it all boils down to the Vesani (and Basso himself) getting very, very rich. The Republic takes a cut of the gold. The Bank takes a handling fee.

Basso goes on to expound his plans to Melsuntha at length. These include:

  • Building a new shipyard and navy
  • Driving the Auxentines out of the sea and taking over the trade routes
  • Creating the Vesani Commonwealth
  • Forming a military/naval Reserve
  • Reforming the legal system with permanent jurors
  • Raising taxes on businesses

On a more personal note, he discovers he enjoys talking to his fiancée. I’d jest and say “mostly about himself,” but it does seem more than that—Basso starts bandying around the word “love” in this chapter.

Chrysophilus swings by to say that Lina is disappointed in the engagement. Basso essentially smiles and shrugs. Later, he does some mysterious paperwork and tells Bassano to move in for good.

All is swiftly explained when Basso sends Lina a letter. Basically, he ran a con on poor Olybrias. The beleaguered Optimate and Lina’s “intended” now has a mortgage on everything he owns… in Basso’s hands. Basso has him sign a contract saying that he’ll never marry Lina.

Lina responds in writing, but the reader isn’t enlightened (although “I feel nothing for you but contempt” is mentioned). Whatever she said, it hurts Basso’s feelings.

Melsuntha encounters the sulking Basso and cheers him up. They play chess (he convinces her to play for—ahem—premarital favours and then sneakily throws the game) and talk about Bassano’s future. Melsuntha hits on the idea of appointing him in charge of the Mint—it is booming (see currency fun, above).

Fast forward a wee bit. Wedding day. It goes… ok. A very small event. Bassano explains that his job at the Mint is pretty awesome and Basso reveals that he’s apparently doing very well. Basso and Melsuntha are married, and then return to work.

The chapter ends with her going to bed early, him staying up late to do more work.

This feels like a peak

With the exception of that very last bit, could things be going any better for Basso? Lina’s no longer got a hold over him, he’s basically growing money, the Republic is doing incredibly well, he’s happily married, his nephew has moved in with him, his friends are all alive and his one pathetic political enemy is completely declawed.

He’s totally doomed, right? We even get a bit of foreshadowing (or so I assume), with Bassano and Melsuntha acknowledging that Lina will never, ever, ever give up.

Looking at that very last bit—Melsuntha goes to bed early, Basso stays up to work—I’m not sure how to interpret it. This is their wedding night. She could be fake-yawning, heading up to the bedroom, a bit come hither… he could be nervous, steeling himself… Or they could just, from day one, be settling into a pattern of amiable, non-romantic companionship. Which, since this chapter reveals that Basso (to his own surprise) is in love, is a little disappointing. Maybe he’s nervous—he’s in love, she’s got the power, he’s uncomfortable with being hurt again. Or, this could just be making a mountain out of a molehill, and, as I type this, they’re shagging like fictional bunnies.

Fausta Tranquillina Carausia

Lina’s full name. We get a rare few pages devoted completely to her. In the same pattern normally reserved for her brother, we see Lina first as a historical figure, and then more intimately. She is a grand dame—related to two First Citizens, incredibly wealthy and demanding, influential in the church. But she’s also, well, bonkers.

The most revealing insight is that she’s as obsessed with Basso as he is with her, except, while he’s got a country to distract him, her entire Severus intellect is devoted to her brother’s ruin. She even—worryingly—pretends to be deaf, and wraps her hand in bloodied cloth.

Destiny!

Perhaps because nothing awful is happening to him, Basso seems to get ahead of the game for once—he’s acting, not reacting. He engineers Olybrias’ downfall, for one, and, if the currency purification was a spur of the moment thing, Basso still manoeuvres to take full advantage of it.

More importantly, we see—perhaps for the first time—that Basso is looking ahead. The empire he schemed up when expanding the war with the Auxentines is now something with a full mental roadmap. Basso may be joking when he talks about a Commonwealth that’s “ten stages down the line” (215), but only in regards to the timeline. Somewhere, he’s put this all together, step by step.

It isn’t just about not responding to situations—as he’s been forced to do in every chapter so far, this is about evaluating Basso and his legacy on more than his luck. Everything he’s done has been a reaction, from the murder of his wife to the war(s) to the plague. He’s always come out of it ok (or better than ok), but the common theme of all the discussions is that he’s been lucky.

Building an empire? Reforming society from the ground up? This isn’t Basso the Lucky—this is Basso the Magnificent. The conversation in this chapter isn’t about his reactions, it is about his actions, and why he believes that they will succeed where so many others have failed.

The most pointed comment on this topic is actually in a discussion about Bassano’s future. “As far as I’m concerned,” Basso says, “destiny is the enemy” (228).

This is a hard line not to love. For Basso, he’s specifically talking about class and opportunity. Melsuntha should be a goatherd; Bassano should be a vapid noble drifter. They’ve both battled their destinies and wound up “better” (“more substantial” may be a better way of putting it) for it.

In regards to Basso, it is about that tension between luck and skill, reaction and action. Basso could rely on his luck as well, and just see what was destined to happen to him. But he won’t, and, as we see in this chapter for the first time, he’s determined to shape events, not surf them.

Finally, in regards to The Folding Knife, “destiny is the enemy” is a completely revisionist way of viewing fantasy. Basso’s not born special or magical. He’s in no way chosen. He’s a very, very different sort of hero. If anything, this reinforces the idea of Basso as a high fantasy villain. He’s the one creating an empire after all. Perhaps some Auxentine goatherd has just awoken with a dragon-shaped tattoo, a magical sword and a prophecy in his head….

Well, born slightly special

Basso is chosen in a way—he’s the 1%, the Elite, whatever you want to call it. Born a Vesani citizen, inheriting a vast pile of wealth, it isn’t like he’s worked his way up from being a goat herder (Melsuntha), slave (Antigonus) or soldier (Aelius). Basso was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and, even if he sometimes forgets it, the book itself doesn’t.

The best example is his conversation with Melsuntha about “civilisation,” and, as she dryly puts it, how “the definition of civilisation is being like the Vesani” (232). As with last chapter, we’re reminded that the Vesani are the centre of their own universe, and there’s a great deal that they don’t actually know. Basso’s got his grand ambition of an empire with colonies, but perhaps he’s not got all the knowledge he needs to pull it off….

Bits

Basso makes Chrysophilus marry him and Olybrias bear witness. That’s just mean to poor Lina.

The priest in the Studium makes reference to a labarum and a globus arciger. The former is a banner, the second, I’m not sure. (Although an “arciger” is a species of jumping spider—and that does seem properly horrible—it doesn’t quite fit in the context.) A “globus cruciger” is a type of orb doohicky with a cross on top. So perhaps this is the same, adapted for the Invincible Sun instead of Christianity.

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!

  • The White Sea: large body of water, controlled or shared with the Auxentines
  • The East: as a place, not a direction—reference to the home of the Eastern Empire?
  • Throne of the Sun, Ascension Week, Queen of Heaven: three more references to the dominant religion (of the Invincible Sun)
  • Fermia: a duchy

As things are going too well, Chapter Nine starts with one of the worst disasters yet. Someone hits Basso where it really hurts—right in the money….


Jared Shurin is terrible at chess.

Rereading K.J. Parker's The Folding Knife: ‹ previous | index | next ›
9 comments
Scott Silver
1. hihosilver28
Jared, thanks for clarifying about Basso's sister last week. That makes sense, especially in this chapter. I just must have read it wrong and kept it in my head since they so rarely address her by her name. And in answer to your question last week about Parker's other works, The Folding Knife was the first one of his that I read. If I'm inclined to read another, Sharps will likely be what I pick up next.

My own personal opinion from reading the book is that Basso and Melsuntha did indeed have a sexual relationship, but that it wasn't the primary draw for either of them.
Questionable
2. Questionable
The first of Parker's books I read was Shadow and I thought it was the best fantasy I'd ever read.. then I discovered that it had sequels and was entirely let down by them revealing bits of plot the reader should never know.

The Folding Knife is to me head and shoulder's above Parker's other books. They're all good, enjoyable reads and worth paying for, but not amazing
Christophe Van Tilborg
3. Baalmond
Another boring note, here, Jared: The word "Baltic" as in "the Baltic Sea" probably originally meant "White."

In my humble opinion, the crowning trilogy by Parker in terms of enjoyability and deeper meaning is the Engineer trilogy. I think that trilogy, along with Sharps, are also her most accessible books. (Shadow being kinda heavy and fencer being heavy and kinda out there.)

I really like the idea of Basso as a villain, by the way. Parker said in an interview somewhere that she was intrigued by the idea of normal people committing evil acts, while thinking they were entirely justified, so the idea of Basso being the villain, even though I've been reading it as Basso being a genius or a visionary or someone who will bring greatness, is enjoyable. But yeah, you'll probably get more into that, as we near the end.
Questionable
5. Fiat Lux
Love this reread -K.J. Parker is a seriously underappreciated author.

A note on the idea of the Gazeteer -I've read an interview with K.J. Parker where she was asked about the recurring place names (nationalities, religions, etc.) in her books. She said it was generally partly a nod to the previous books and partly just because she didn't like coming up with new names.

She went on to say that she has a very vague and nebulous idea of the greater world and arc of history that all the books might possibly take place in, but there was no definitely no Tolkienesque elaborate, unpublished text with maps and timelines. An example she gave is a reference to a Mezentine rapier in, I think, Sharps -she said she pictured this an old and rare relic -suggesting that the story is taking place a long time after the Engineer trilogy, in which the Mezentine workshops were churning out blades like that by the hundred.
Jared Shurin
6. Jared_Shurin
@Fiat Lux: Great spot for the timeline... I think I actually conducted the interview you speak of (at least, I definitely took the chance to fire the "IS THIS ONE WORLD?" question and got the same reponse: "Yes, but out of practicality, not, uh, meta-scheming."

@Baalmond: Love the etymological connections... That also, as far as 'real world' analogues, puts this in a completely (previously) undiscussed part of the world. I mean, good lord, what if the entire thing is inspired by the Baltic states, with Russia as the Eastern Empire?

@Baalmond & Questionable: I also think the Engineer Trilogy is probably the jewel in Parker's crown, but I have a huge appreciation for the Scavenger series as well (Shadow, etc.) There's definitely something disappointing in how banal(?)/prosaic(?) Poldarn's past is when it is revealed, but I think the whole series is a genius piece of writing: the entire plot (step by step) is given away in an early chapter and the book concludes unexpectedly (and HUGELY) with the very last sentence. A lot of the same literary experiementation that happens in The Folding Knife, but on a much bigger scale. So very grim though...

@hihosilver: I'm pretty convinced they're, er, consummating their marriage as well, but I'm still not sure of what happened on the actual wedding night. Very weird way to start!

I just finished re-reading "One Little Room and Everywhere" and, like Sharps, it seems like it is taking place far into the future compared to The Folding Knife - although that's just a hunch. The same countries still abound and there's a reference to the "Second Vesani War".

Part of the timeline that would need to be resolved is the presence of the Studium - the wizards in Parker's short stories aren't there in a lot of the author's other work. (And the wizards in The Fencer Trilogy are a similar, but rawer breed.) We can use that as a measuring stick, although back to the point way above, it feels like an accidental thing. But hey, still fun!
Christophe Van Tilborg
7. Baalmond
I got the impression that the two countries in Sharps are equivalent to small, Eastern European nations (like Serbia/ Croatia), but everything else considered, I never got a Kiev-Rus feel from any other culture described by Parker, except, possibly that the Order of the Invincible Sun, especially especially as described in "One Little Room and Everywhere," is the Christian Orthodox faith (because of the iconography).

I thought of the Eastern Empire as Byzantine, but now I'm not entirely sure whether a Moravian or Kiev-Rus Empire is to be discounted entirely. Still doubt it, though, because Parker REALLY loves Latin and Greek culture in her stories.

I admire Scavenger as well. It's not the first book I'd give to a friend to show "Oh, I really like this author, please read." (There are ick reasons) I admire that every book is a very different story and they all come forward as a whole. Also, Deymeson monks are heavy metal.
Jared Shurin
8. Jared_Shurin
@Baalmond: Interestingly, in "One Little Room an Everywhere", the "orbus armiger" is an "orbus cruciger". Curious what happened there. Accident (probably), different objects (possibly) or part of a complex web of hints that helps us understand how the two stories relate in terms of time and geography (extremely unlikely).
Christophe Van Tilborg
9. Baalmond
An orbus Cruciger is the erm... Ball with the cross on it. Statues of christian rulers tend to hold this with a scepter. It's a symbol of the ruler's divine power. I think an Orbus Armiger would be a more earthly object. A ball that somehow denotes earthly power? A ball with a sword on it? That's as deep as I can dig.
Jared Shurin
10. Jared_Shurin
The only "armiger" reference I can find is to the one in this story. It is like a KJ Parker googlewhack. I'm wondering if it is just made up...

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment