Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Prelude

Welcome to the reread of K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife.

First published in 2010, The Folding Knife is the story of Basso the Magnificent—a legend in his own time. An intelligent, confident, clever and otherwise lucky man, Basso is haunted by one mistake he makes in his life. The Folding Knife is as much the story of that one moment as it is the surrounding years.

Before we leap in, why does The Folding Knife actually merit a re-read? The Hobbit is 75 years old and influenced everything ever written in fantasy ever. The Malazan series is 8 million words of epicness. Alan Moore is a genius. Etc.

Why bother with this (relatively) slim, (relatively) young volume from a (relatively) unknown writer?

First, the structure of The Folding Knife is rereadtastic. (If you’re actually going to join in this mad project, please be aware that I do make stuff up.) K.J. Parker is hell on traditional narrative structures. If you’ve read the Scavenger series or even Sharps, you’ll know what I mean: these aren’t books with beginnings, middles and ends—they’re books that spiral and loop.

Don’t worry though—this isn’t a wacky modernist “who needs a plot?” thing. There’s story aplenty, but, as you’ll see, you start the book knowing how it ends. In fact, within the prelude, you learn a) who Basso is, b) how powerful he becomes, c) what haunting mistake he makes and d) what becomes of him. The book is all about the how, and that makes it perfect for a reread: whether you’ve read it six times or none, we’re all on the same page. It is a book nearly impossible to spoil.

Second, you can’t analyse The Folding Knife enough. There are some wonderfully granular rereads going on Tor.com; some books naturally engender a sort of microscopic analysis. This is one of them.

Again, you can blitz through this book at face value and it is a hoot. But, as noted above, the fun is in the how. There are a hundred little hints and tricks and repetitions and nods and winks and nudges within The Folding Knife, and I hope you enjoy hunting for them as much as I do. Moreover, not to infer any sort of authorial intent, but I think we’re justified in reading it this way. As Parker shows in the Scavenger and Engineer trilogies, the devil is often in the details—that every tiny cog and gear is meaningful and part of a greater whole. So let’s assume that’s happening here as well, and go cog-hunting!

Third, The Folding Knife is just a brilliantly fun book—incredibly quotable, dry, witty, funny… packed with war and romance and set on an imperial scale. Parker is one of the great writers of the modern era (those of us that like Parker are perhaps a wee bit cultish in our enthusiasm), and The Folding Knife is a fantastic way in. So let’s get started, shall we?

 

Prelude: Forty Years Later

What happens:

Well, everything and nothing. An unnamed man is traveling on the roof of a coach in the middle of nowhere. He clearly was a somebody. His clothes are expensive, he’s got good shoes and he’s carrying a foxy, gold-handled pocket knife. But the coat is dirty and he’s traveling out the outside of the coach with the porter and the footman. He was rich, but not any more. While fussing with the knife, he drops it. Although he shouts for the coach to stop, his orders are ignored and he watches it disappear in the distance. He flashes back…

[Wavey hands]

Twenty years earlier—he’s in a beautiful room with two dead people. There’s a naked man on the floor with his throat cut, still holding a dagger in his hand. There’s a woman on the bed, also with her throat cut. The memory is seen through a red blur, because the man—our protagonist—has blood in his eyes. He’s holding the same folding knife that he drops on the road twenty years later.

There’s a short interlude where he muses (from the perspective of twenty years later) that this memory has stuck with him all his life, even more than, say, the beautiful, masterpiece painting that he once hung by his bed. Back at the gory scene, the man watches the woman bleed out.

He turns around—his children have entered the room, twin boys, seven year olds. He orders them out of the room. They stare at him, understandably horrified.

A second within-flashback interlude, as the yet-unnamed protagonist considers again that this scene has haunted him all his life, and “surely, by now, that should’ve been the least of my problems.”

[Wavey hands]

He opens his eyes.

AND SCENE.

 

Thoughts:

This is a very short prelude—Robert Jordan wouldn’t even call this a sentence—but there’s so very much here.

First, as I’ve noted about six times already, “Forty Years Later” gives us everything. After three pages, what we do we already know:

  • We’re at the end of the story (hence the chapter title).
  • Our unnamed protagonist was rich, successful and powerful; now he’s a nobody. Parker doesn’t even leave that to chance, giving us the line “he recognises and concedes that he’s not the man he once was” (2).
  • Twenty years ago, he committed a murder and/or was directly involved in the deaths of two people .
  • He has a family—superficially, this is the least important part, but I think the kids are there to help the reader guess who the victims are (and even make an assumption regarding his  motive) .

This is also the first appearance of the titular knife—plus, in terms of story chronology, the last, as the poor thing bounces off into the sunset.

The interlude with the painting reveals that the protagonist was (immensely) wealthy in purchasing a painting by one of “the great masters.” There’s a nice bit of comedic timing at work—with the work’s perfection praised at length… and then the protagonist gets bored of it within a month. He replaces it with a mirror “as a form of punishment.”

But this isn’t just a joke—it is a microcosm of the book as a whole: Basso’s urge to forget, his ability to command the impossible, his luck/savviness when it comes to making a profit and, under the surface, his self-loathing. There’s also a hint that his sense of self-worth may not be solely tied to the actions in his memories. He begins the scene by having “something wrong” with his hand, and the mirror’s role also hints that he may not be happy with his physical appearance.

We’ll have more revealed there in the next chapter when we meet Basso properly, but in the meantime, if you may want to dust off your copy of I, Claudius… I’ll be hacking through The Folding Knife at one or two chapters a week, so there’s plenty of time to grab a copy and join in.


Jared likes K.J. Parker a lot.

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