Jul 19 2013 9:00am

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Seventeen

The Folding Knife KJ Parker

Well, that was messy, wasn’t it? The last chapter gave us a moment of brilliant hope—Bassano as hero! The Vesani win the war!—then took it all away from us in the final, agonising lines. Bassano’s dead, and three-quarters of the army are gone with him.

What happens next?

Chapter Seventeen is a classic denouement—it isn’t just the final resolution of the plot, it also neatly tidies up all of the character arcs. Well, maybe not too neatly...

Oh, and, hey. Spoilers.

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

We go old school, and the chapter begins in the traditional fashion—the “historical view” of proceedings in the House. Basso (in absentia) is being charged with a vast list of crimes—everything from the “reckless occupation of Voroe” to, you know, spending the Treasury’s money like it was his own.

The new leader of the Optimates, Scaevola, summarises the situation. The Vesani are hosed:

  • The army in Mavortis is devastated
  • The Mavortines are picking off the Vesani forts, and will soon have the Vesani kicked out of their country
  • The fleet is stuck in Voroe, pinned down by an Imperial armada
  • The Empire has said they’ll be taking the City next
  • There’s no one left that will fight for the Vesani

In short, the House is preparing for surrender to the Empire.

Meanwhile, Basso and Melsuntha are packing. The little money they have in the house, her jewellery, anything small and valuable. Basso asks Melsuntha to come with him, and when she says yes, he’s strangely touched (“awwww”).

They sneak out the window and take off. The City is a wreck. They stop for a drink (so dignified) then clamber over some carts and get out into the country.

Basso and Melsuntha stroll for a while, then plop down to scheme about the future. Melsuntha then comes out with the most extraordinary confession. She’s been spying for the Mavortines. Passing them (useless) information, mostly. Then, when the army went into the forest and everyone (on the Mavortine side) was worried that they were doomed, she struck on the idea of using the plague that just broke out in Permia (Chapter Fifteen—453, very sneaky). Under her instruction, the Mavortines got some plague-ridden corpses from Permia and used them to infect the Vesani troops in the fortresses. When the Vesani forces came out of the woods, victorious, they immediately caught the plague and were wiped out.

As Basso points out, it is a Pyrrhic victory—the Mavortines now have the plague as well, and it’ll decimate the country. But as Melsuntha says, “we’d rather die than be conquered” (494).

Basso is stunned. He takes his folding knife out (uh oh…) but then reconsiders and lets her leave.

After a sleepless night of shock, Basso is back on the move. He encounters a variety of fairly inhospitable people—trading coins (“pictures of himself”) for scraps of food. Eventually he runs into the carriage of Magnentius X (remember him from Chapter Eleven? He was being a pest in Scleria then, but has clearly continued his rise in the world.).

Magnentius recognises Basso and owes him a “good turn.” He hires Basso on as a clerk and they head off to Auxentia. Basso takes the name of “Antigonus” and climbs to the top of the carriage. Which takes us right back to the Prelude…

Conclusions and conclusions and such

Well, three more candidates for the one mistake:

  1. “By pinning all his hopes on the Mavortine mines, Bassianus Severus had acted with a degree of blind stupidity that bewildered the mind… a monstrous error of judgement” (483)—This is the “historical” view, and it makes sense. “History” wouldn’t bother with the personal or family stuff, the record will only focus on Basso’s “error” of gambling too heavily on the Mavortine mines.
  2. “I loved him so much and my love killed him” (Basso’s note to Lina, 485)—Here it sounds like Basso’s primary regret is something related to Bassano. His pressure on Bassano, his belief that Bassano would be prince (or emperor), his sending Bassano off to war… something along those lines. Wibbly, but at least it narrows down the field somewhat.
  3. “‘I didn’t realise…’ He shook his head. Too stupid to be able to think through the mess in his head.” (Basso to Melsuntha, 493)—This is our last real competitor for the Big Mistake (at least, I hope so—we’re out of book). Basso should’ve realised that Melsuntha was a spy, or he should’ve known that she was loyal to her homeland. [I’m not sure about this, mostly because it seems like Melsuntha’s mistake. But I’m open-minded…]

Character Outcomes (Spoilers!)

Character: Basso
Result: Loses all his money and his family name, but takes the name of his (spiritual) father, Antigonus.

Character: Melsuntha
Result: Back to Mavortis—a free woman (in every way)

Character: Bassano
Result: Dead (plague)

Character: Aelius
Results: Dead (war), had achieved everything he’d ever wanted, lost to an inferior opponent—knew it was coming

Character: Antigonus
Results: Dead (old age), lived in poverty (unnecessarily), but happily; died peacefully and with few regrets

Character: Tragazes
Results: Fine, witness against Basso

Character: Lina
Results: Humiliated in the market (chariot crash), strong indication that she’s gone insane

Characters: Festo and Pio
Results: We have no idea (only fitting)

Character: Bevennius the Barber
Results: Back into poverty (but at least home in the City)

Character: Magnentius
Results: Doing very well, thank you. (Challenge: is the gift of figs the moment where Basso passed on his luck?)

“Character”: Vesani Republic
Results: Absorbed back into the Empire

“Character”: The Bank
Results: Dead (starvation)

“Character”: The Empire
Results: Reclaiming lost provinces (if the Vesani were capable of taking Auxenia, Scleria and Mavortis, this should be easy for them) (Interestingly, Basso was fooled into thinking their fleet went elsewhere—maybe their spies are better than he thought…)

“Character”: Mavortis
Results: Dead (plague)—but free!

Our reading group questions are:

Did everyone get what we expected, based on stories of this type?
No way.

Did everyone get what they deserved?
Yes, I think.

Did Basso make a difference? Or has everything returned to the status quo?
The latter, I think.

Was Basso lucky? Magnificent? A villain?
No. Yes. Maybe.

What was his mistake?

What do you think?

We’ll have one lonely wrap-up post next week, to talk about a few of the themes and revisit some of the wild claims I made in the prologue. Also a quick look around The Folding Knife: the context in which it was published and the mysterious figure who wrote it.

The Gazetteer: our chapter-by-chapter summary of the world-building fun

  • The Memory of Heroes—an inn (I like the name)
  • Hus—to the north somewhere. Basso sees the northern border 100 miles off from the city, then the land rises slowly, finally turning into a “desert of coarse grass” that’s home to the Hus (491)
  • Mavortis—to the east somewhere, at least, so Melsuntha says. We know the distances better thanks to the end of Chapter Sixteen.
  • Auxentia—also the east
  • Blemmya—also the north

Jared Shurin would be a terrible clerk. He’s ok at math though.

Rereading K.J. Parker's The Folding Knife: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. Hodor
Hello Jared,

I've loved reading your recaps of the novel- after reading your initial post, I purchased The Folding Knife right away and have been devouring Parker's books and stories since then. I had some thoughts/questions on Sharps which I had hoped to discuss with you, if you were interested.

I see Basso's fatal flaw somewhat differently than you do, and as being connected both to what happens to Bassano and with Mesluntha.

I think that Basso is so caught up with the idea of being able to acheive good/just outcomes through underhanded means/motivations, that he actually believes those are the only way to acheive those outcomes. The problem with that, is that while Basso thinks of himself as a utilitarian or pragmatist, it means that if (as happened), his plans go wrong, he will make things a lot worse, because he's always doing something which could be seen as corrupt or evil to acheive his desired end.

In regard to his relationship with Mesluntha, I think his attitude causes her to see him as completely amoral, which is why she wouldn't believe that he would have called off his war of conquest had she asked. One scene I note is that when Mesluntha suggests killing off the girl the Twins raped, Basso objects not out of a moral reason, but because of a detail that would hamper that plan. I wonder if perhaps Mesluntha was testing him, and he failed.
2. Herb44
I didn't like the ending that much at the time, but it works a lot better in retrospect.

Basso's biggest weakness may be one shared with his countrymen: hubris regarding everyone outside the city. He failed in large part because he badly misunderstood the Mavortines and badly underestimated the Empire. There really wasn't an excuse for either. There are plenty of Mavortines in Vesani. They had a window into their culture. Vesani has an economy built mainly on TRADE--just how far did they think they could fool the Empire? How much do you think you can keep hidden when merchants and sailors must regularly travel between the two?
3. Hodor
That's also a good point. Thinking about, one thing kind of funny is that Basso sometimes jokes about the extent to which the Vesani are xenophobic and have an inflated sense of their own superiority, but he himself displays that plenty of times.

One way this comes across is how few details the book gives about the cultres of other countries/city states, since Basso is ignorant of such things.
Jared Shurin
4. Jared_Shurin
@Hodor: "One scene I note is that when Melsuntha suggests killing off the girl the Twins raped, Basso objects not out of a moral reason, but because of a detail that would hamper that plan. I wonder if perhaps Mesluntha was testing him, and he failed."

That's a really good point... something happened between the night where Basso & Melsuntha pitched the idea to Bassano and the end of the book, because, that first night, Melsuntha seemed completely on board. My people need a government and all that... So what happened to make her change her mind? Especially since, the way she phrases it, she had changed her mind before the invasion even began. This could be it. Nice spot!

I agree with your point about Basso's ultitarian motives - although it is interesting that he sees Bassano as someone that will rise above this. Basso can only do good through evil (to put it really roughly), but Bassano will be somehow inherently good, and be able to solve problems (like the plague doctor's challenge) without sinking to the utilitarian level. At least, so Basso thinks.

And Sharps! Always!

@Herb44: It really is amazing how completely ridiculous the Vesani are in that respect, isn't it? I mean, there's the bit towards the end where Basso is wandering around trying to find the Cazars and Hus for the first time, and realising he knows nothing about them. And, of course, Antigonus at the beginning - talking about how the Vesani have preserved culture beautifully, but aren't doing anything new.

It was only this last time through the book that I spotted the bit about the Imperial fleet reappearing suddenly - after Basso was convinced they'd gone off hunting pirates. The reprecussion being that the Empire really does have better spies than Basso does. (We also learn that their ships are better in the first fight, which goes against the theorising that Basso and his generals had done earlier in the book.)

Poor Basso. It is actually an interesting perspective to think that maybe nothing he did actually mattered at all, and he was completely outclassed from the beginning.

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