Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Three

Last week, we revisited Basso’s most revealing memory—the day he killed his wife and her mother. But hey, he’s also got a great new job running a bank!

Chapter 3: He Understood Gestures

Basso wins a closely contested election and becomes the First Citizen of the Vesani Republic. The election day (so we hear) was a wild one: the twins have a lavish coming of age ceremony, Basso takes over a rival bank, there’s rioting in the streets, Basso’s father dies and, ultimately, Basso wins (narrowly).

To top it all off, the King of Scleria declares war on the Vesani Republic, making Basso’s first day in the office a, for lack of a better word, “historic” one.

Lina moves out to the country with Bassano in tow. Her relationship with Basso has deteriorated—she only takes his money because she has to and she won’t let him help out Bassano at all. Reluctantly, she also lets Basso buy her a small house in town, so, even if she refuses to see him, at least she’s (sometimes) close by.

Our old friend Aelius returns. Forlorn, but honourable, he tries to resign his commission. Aelius describes how he’s always opposed Basso; Basso counters by pointing out that Aelius has often been his greatest ally (just without knowing it). Instead of letting him go, Basso promotes him. Aelius is sent off to fight the Sclerians.

Antigonus discovers that Basso’s rivals have tried something sneaky. On the eve of the election, the owners of the Merchant’s Benevolent Fund (the bank which Basso took over) took out a huge government loan and hid the evidence. This means that Basso, by winning the election, is suddenly exposed to all sorts of nasty “conflict of interest” accusations. Basso publicly writes off the loan—he has no real choice in the matter, and the gesture is calculated to annoy his rivals. To rub salt into their wounds, he deliberately makes a huge, and utterly random, investment: he starts up a shipyard.

Later, Basso tries to join Aelius at the front. There’s a heated argument (well, as heated as Basso ever gets), but Aelius won’t let him. The war is a success for the Vesani. Aelius delivers the Sclerians a mild thumping and the Sclerians are scared off by the seemingly inexhaustible supply of warships produced by Basso’s new shipyard.

After doing his very best to engineer a meeting “casually,” Basso gives up and sends for Bassano. The two talk about Bassano’s father for the first time. During the course of the conversation, Bassano lets slip that one of the twins (Festo) has been sneaking off to gamble on cockfighting.

Basso stages a national cockfighting tournament and gets Festo to make his selections for him. Festo is embarrassed. The tournament, however, is a huge success—both financially and in terms of Basso’s public approval.

For once, we don’t end on something overtly depressing.

Fiction or History?

This chapter begins in that, now very familiar, structurally inverted, way. The first line reveals that Basso’s father is dead. Then we learn that Basso won the election, then we learn about the hostile takeover, the twins’ ceremony, the riots and the declaration of war. For most of this, that’s all we learn—again, making the priorities of Basso clear (roughly speaking, father > war > takeover > riots > twins).

Arguably, these aren’t Basso’s priorities. For the first time, we get the sense that Basso is acting on a historic scale. As fiction readers, we’re trained to think that Basso’s relationship with his family should have precedence—this is about a human being, correct? By not talking more about the twins (we don’t even learn their names until late in this chapter—Festo and Pio, by the way), the reader’s knee-jerk reaction is to think of Basso as a bit of a sociopath.

But as a work of “history,” the twins’ coming of age ceremony is ultimately meaningless. What does history deem important? The speech he makes. The bank he buys. The war he wins. Politics. Economics. War. Even how he wins (the riots) is little more than a footnote.

Are we led to believe this is the “right” way of looking at Basso’s story? I don’t think so—if anything, what we get in this chapter is a precarious balancing act. It begins with the historical picture, then focuses in on a few key actions. Is Basso a man or a “Great Man” in the way he handles the war, or the shipyard or the cockfighting? By the end of the chapter, Basso’s questioning his own motives. The shipyard is an immediate success and incredibly significant to the Vesani Republic. Does it matter that Basso only hit on the idea as a thinly-veiled “homage” to his own father’s failures? The question of intent—how much we can ever understand how a character thinks—is critical throughout The Folding Knife, but only in this chapter do we start to see it on such a vast scale.

The Axis of Evil

The chapter structure (ending first) isn’t the only thing that Parker flips upside-down in The Folding Knife. Basso, for all practical purposes, should be a villain.

In fact, as shown in the convenient chart provided, Basso covers all the bases.

Basso is a villain handy flowchart

Basso is a villain

  • He’s ugly. A classic of Disney and high fantasy villains alike. Pretty people = good. Ugly people = evil. Think of James Bond, and his endless series of physically “imperfect” foes. Classic example: Grendel, “warped in the shape of a man… an unnatural birth”.
  • He’s a murderer. Most fantasy heroes are murderers, but they keep their depredations to Orcs and Evil Ones. Basso kills his wife and her lover and, despite his assurances, even he’s not sure it was the right thing to do. Another classic example: Cain, because, if I can drop a Biblical reference in here, it all sounds much more serious.
  • He’s a politician. Not just the man in charge, but an actual politician that campaigns for power. Another trope—we’re now trained to think of politicians as conniving and evil. At best, the politicians of genre fiction are dithering fools—obstacles. More frequently (see: Wizard’s First Rule or The Heritage of Shannara series), politicians are outright corrupt—possibly even pawns of The Evil.
  • He’s a banker. The newest trope, and still largely unexplored in genre fiction. But when The Folding Knife was released, in 2010, being a banker in Great Britain was about as popular as being a professional kitten-skinner. There’s simply no way KJ Parker could have signposted Basso as a “bad guy” any more clearly.

Where’s this all lead? Again, I think it comes back to the question of motivation. What is Basso’s motivation and, even more importantly, does it matter? In this chapter we start seeing how history will treat Basso—and his uncertainty about his own decisions. Does it matter if he’s a hero or a villain? How can we can actually judge this? We may need more charts….

Bits and bobs:

The election could come from a few different historical periods (which is possibly why Parker doesn’t get into the details). It does seem to be some sort of genuine republic, with ward-by-ward voting, and only citizens participating. Plus riots.

Basso’s father dies. There’s also a sad moment where Basso mentions that his father blew Palo’s (the dead brother-in-law’s) inheritance on a bad investment, trying to compete with his son. Palo’s money was the (macabre) silver lining to Basso’s murders, and possibly the “long term investment” referred to in chapter one. Now, wasted—and, relative to Basso’s total wealth, not even significant.

Basso’s father is referred to as “Vipsanius Severus.” Last chapter, he was “Minister Honorius Severus.” These names may never make sense to me.

Basso refers to taking over the role of First Citizen as “like trying to put on shoes three sizes too small” (69). He’s used this phrase before to talk about adaptation, specifically to marriage (38). The way it is written (parenthesized) seems to make it a knowing wink to the earlier usage. Hopefully it works out better this time.

There’s also a repeated action—Basso snaps out the flame of a candle (77) just as he did a wasp (24). It seems he can’t resist trying to prove that he’s quicker/luckier than something dangerous.

A phrase that will reappear a lot now pops up for the first time: “violence is an admission of failure” (72).

Basso apparently spent part of his childhood sneaking away to do some prize-fighting. As you do. His oh-so-casual reference to this (he’s showing off for Bassano, isn’t he?) is in stark contrast to the high fantasy tradition, where we’d view Basso’s struggles (and inevitable triumph) in minute detail. Patrick Rothfuss and Brent Weeks have both written books about the sort of thing that Basso addresses in a single paragraph. Again, it is a matter of priorities. Basso being a boxing champion means little to him personally and even less historically, so it needs nothing more.

Lovely passage 89 and 90. Basso’s sister was a talented musician, she’s “get to the point where she was technically perfect, and then when she played for people, she could tell they weren’t enjoying it. There was no feeling in it, you see.” She’s also, apparently, better at math than Basso—yet he’s the banker. From this we start to get a better picture of Lina, and the nature of the grudge she bears.

And, like all things, this section ends on a bittersweet note. Lina refuses to see Basso, but he admits that she’s the person he loves most in the world. This feels like a more traditionally Folding Knife ending to the chapter than the ensuing excursion into cockfighting.

But it can’t be all grim all the time. And hey, things are looking up!

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!

  • Emperor Teudel. A military genius, apparently began as a blacksmith. (Historical figure, sounds kind of awesome.)
  • Scleria. Neighbouring monarchy. Basso’s speech indicates that the Vesani were once part of Scleria, but won their freedom 300 years before.
  • Beroea. Geographic region. Where Aelius comes from.

Jared Shurin never snuck out to fight other apprentices. Unless you count Diablo 2.


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