Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Thirteen

In the last chapter, we saw the Vesani Republic (soon to be Empire) scaling up for the invasion of Mavortis. Maps, mercenaries and mine ponies, all summoned up by Basso’s grand vision. The only flaw in the great plan? Basso’s own sons.

Nothing a little bribery couldn’t sort out.

Chapter Thirteen: “A bloody odd way for humans to spend their time”

“Quite suddenly, the war was ready.” The chapter begins with everything coming together on time. I’d say “miraculously,” but it was less “divine intervention” than the hard work (and vast amounts of money) of an entire nation.

Bassano is given several going away presents. Basso gives him good armor and a good book. Aelius gives him a sword. Melsuntha gives him a hat (fur-lined, reinforced). Lina gives him what is essentially a pocket altar. Basically, Bassano’s protected from everything: swords, arrows, cold, boredom and damnation.

Aelius gets another embarrassing ritual on the way out. And then the lads are off to conquest.

Basso has a meeting with Tragazes. Tragazes is… boring, but the message is that the Bank is close to becoming over-committed. The level of lending to the government is becoming difficult to support, all projected against the Treasury gains from the war, etc. etc. Basso points out that the government = Basso = the Bank, and if something goes wrong, they’ll probably have worse problems than financial ruin. He mentions “hunger rioters.” Tragazes has no sense of humour, presses on accordingly.

Basso is too keyed up to work, so he sneaks out. He decides to test his luck and heads off to the dog races, where he wins a fairly outrageous amount of money. (He starts with a half solidus and winds up with 135 nomismata. We also figure out that the conversion rate is 12 solidi to one nomismata, incidentally.) With no idea what to do with the cash, Basso reinvests it in the bookmaker—in Bassano’s name.

Basso does some snooping to see what people think of Bassano. No real answers. With his interest in the gambling industry finalised, he wanders home. His own guards don’t recognise him and won’t let him in. Basso winds up spending the night in prison. No one is very happy the next morning.

A short letter arrives from Aelius, saying, essentially, “hey.” Two days later, a detailed message arrives from Bassano. The Mavortines greeted the invading army with 7,000 militia on the beach. Just as Bassano was thinking, “well, that sucks,” Aelius unleashed the shipboard artillery. While the Mavortines dodged giant rocks, Aelius unloaded his archers and, eventually, his infantry. Vesani losses: 3 men. Mavortine: over 300. It was a rout. From there, the Vesani occupied and fortified Bilemvasia—which had been abandoned by the Mavortines. The enemy has disappeared.

The local intelligence was a bit tricky. No one knows anything about anything, nobody answers a direct question and every tribe has a different name for every landmark. On top of that, it is miserable, uncomfortable and “the last place on earth.” Bassano couldn’t be more fascinated (his word!).

Back home, Basso’s found a few new enemies. Apparently last chapter’s stunt has brought him the attention of the Empire as Segimerus, a famous philosopher, swings by. He requests permission to see the war zone so he can test his own theory of the observer effect. Basso pretty quickly realises that he’s an Imperial spy, but he’s looking forward to getting the objective intelligence (nicked from Segimerus) and, hell, he’s a handy translator.

The Empire also arrives in person—at least, in the person of an ambassador (plus “fifty eunuchs, a hundred men-at-arms and twenty-five choristers, who sang his official statements in plainsong”). They’re a strange lot. Basso feigns, well, ignorance. The Vesani act silly and superstitious—the Empire are underwhelmed. Then Basso intercepts a message from the ambassador to Segimerus, and confirms the whole thing: as far as the Empire are concerned, the Vesani are no threat at all.

Sneaky, sneaky Basso.

Maybe things aren’t quite going to plan

Nothing really goes wrong in this chapter, but it doesn’t feel quite as “on track” as last chapter. Granted, Chapter 12 involved Basso’s children being revealed as rapists, but his grand vision was still intact. Chapter 13? Doesn’t it feel like we’re suddenly swimming in foreshadowing?

First, the Empire. Basso seems pretty chilled out about this—in fact, it all seems to go well. But a power that he wasn’t keen to provoke for a few years is now turning its Sauronic eye in the direction of the Vesani.

Second, the Bank. It is easy to ignore Tragazes (Basso does!), but, in this chapter, his droning includes some rather disquieting notes. Granted, he’s obligated to give these warnings, and Basso’s quick to hurry him along, but it is becoming clear that the Bank/government virtuous circle might have serious repercussions. Essentially, Basso’s going all-in. If the government falls, so does the Bank. And vice versa.

Third, as well-prepared as the Vesani army is, it seems like there’s a lot they don’t know about Mavortis. Certainly the military engagement has been cakewalk, but occupying a country with no central language—or even commonly-understood place names? Relying on an Imperial spy to play translator isn’t quite a sign of desperation, but it is a hint that, no matter how good Basso and Aelius are, they might not have prepared for every eventuality.


Initially I was just going to write, “HAR HAR, THEY’RE FUNNY,” but then the parallels between Empire/Vesani Republic and Vesani Republic/Mavortis clicked into place. The Vesani see the Mavortines as primitive, alien, unhelpful and ridiculous. Just like the Empire sees the Vesani… So, what I initially thought was a comedic touch actually has a great deal of significance:

  • In context of the plot of The Folding Knife, this only thickens the stench of looming disaster—are the Mavortines playing the Vesani like the Vesani are playing the Empire?
  • In the context of the book’s themes of perception and I’ve been clumsily calling the “historical view,” this episode just demonstrates another means of perception and bias. Just as Basso’s views of events are different from those of Aelius, or those of Bassano, or those of our impartial narrator… there are also entire civilisations and cultures that are perceived things through their own filters. As far as an Imperial history of this time period goes, would Basso even merit a footnote? Unlikely.
  • In greater terms, it is nice to see Basso’s role as smug imperialist dispelled. He’s convinced that he’s bringing the orderly blessings of Vesani civilisation to the natives. To the Vesani, remember, Mavortis is “the end of the earth” and the best thing the Vesani can do for them is conquer them to give them a government. I now suspect that the Empire feels exactly the same away about the Vesani…

Anyway, that’s all leading up to something, isn’t it? Basso’s great plan is now in motion—possibly the first truly active (not reactive) thing he’s done. Let’s see how it goes in Chapter Fourteen, shall we?

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

  • “Type Fourteen riding sword; Auxentine steel”—very similar to the descriptions of weaponry used by the Mezentines in the Engineer trilogy. Again, I’m throwing this in the theory that this book takes place after the Engineer and Scavenger trilogies.
  • Glabrius, Passienus, siege of Luma—Vesani military triumph, 600 years in the past
  • “The Czar of Permia”—A joke made by one sentry. The Permians are in Sharps, but I’m fairly sure they don’t have a Czar.
  • Vesani history: broke away from the Empire over two centuries ago
  • Empire: Emperor Timoleon (is the current Emperor)
  • Lots of ancient heroes (mostly page 364): Torquati, Five Thousand, Caelius, Pacatianus, Carinus, Popilius


  • Dialogues—Scaphio Metellinus, one of Bassano’s favourites
  • Book of Admonitions—religious text for the Invincible Sun
  • The Mist of Reason—Segimerus’ popular philosophy

Next week: more warmongering!

Jared Shurin still thinks the Empire is pretty goofy.


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