Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Fourteen

Last chapter saw the first blood shed of the Vesani invasion of Mavortis. But in Chapter Fourteen, it gets real… the Republic’s army has landed and is getting down to the bloody business of making war. Meanwhile, Basso has a few fights of his own.

Chapter Fourteen: “I can’t help it if people are stupid”

The chapter begins with a letter from Bassano. It sounds like the Vesani invasion is going nicely (they win… a lot), but Bassano’s letter takes a more introspective tack. He’s feeling guilty-stroke-lucky for just standing around while the others do all the work. And, as he delineates, battles are a lot of work. Not just the “decimating the enemy” bit, but the “cleaning up afterwards, making dinner, patrolling the place, digging graves, building a stockade and then marching again.” But at least Bassano has has a private chef.

Next letter—Segimerus, the philosopher/spy (which sounds like one of those weird AD&D classes that I used to read about in Dragon magazine, circa early 1990s—tell me I’m not alone here), who has essentially sussed out the master plan. It is all very flattering to Basso, in fact—he’s pleased to read that Segimerus views the Vesani as a short to medium term danger. So pleased that he excises that bit, and sends a safely-censored letter on to the Imperial whatnots.

Third letter—Aelius. He’s figured out the nasty geography of Mavortis. There’s a big ol’ forest in the center (we knew that already), but the Mavortines are (wisely) heading towards that, rather than engaging in pitched battles like gentlemen. Aelius wants more men so he can build fortresses—essentially to surround the forest and keep it off limits.

And with that, we’re back to the city. Cinio’s freaking out a bit about the cost of sending another 9,500 men off to war—with good cause. Basso dismisses him. Tragazes follows. The Bank is dangerously overextended. Worse, that virtuous circle of war profiteering (in which the Bank lends money to the Republic who spends it with the Bank who…etc.) is disrupted—someone has gotten an external moneylender (a Sclerian bank) involved, and now all the fussy little debts are stacking up and the whole thing is threatening to come unstuck.

Next scene: Basso is sad. He misses Antigonus. He even misses his sister.

…so he invents paper money. Seriously. That’s our boy, right? Can’t keep him down.

Meanwhile, back in Mavortis—another letter from Bassano. There’s a last pitched battle against the Mavortines. A group of seven thousand tries to plow through to the forest, but Aelius et al. cut them down like, er… kids in a gardening store? Something. Bassano is becoming a little unhinged: he’s starting to doubt the greater meaning of, well, everything, and is dabbling with moral relativism. Kids these days.

City again. Basso’s own cabinet comes to his door—sheepishly—and ask for an end to the war. They’re broke and nervous. Basso chucks them out—“they can’t fail, because they’ve already won.” (420)

Except they haven’t. Mavortis! Letter from Aelius. Fortress system kind of leaky, lots of Mavortines inside the woods. Needs more men, please!

City! Men hard to find. Basso gets wily. Hires who he can from the Cazars. Rejected by Hus (who are awesome—like, I dunno, existential Dothraki). Can’t find Jazyges, eventually snaffles a lot of Blemmyans, who are going to be very confused…

…but so are the Mavortines. Bassano writes that the Mavortines aren’t just hanging out in the woods, they’re striking back. One of the Vesani forts is ruined. Wiped out. The Republic’s first loss and a terrifying sign of things to come. Aelius offers to resign (he does that a lot), but also proposes the one thing he knows he can do: march into the forest and fight the Mavortines on their own turf (well, another part of their own turf).

Basso, keen that this doesn’t get out, burns the letter. He writes Aelius to go ahead—do what he needs. Then he writes Bassano—under no conditions should Bassano go into the forest. Stay out. Stay safe.

Things go wrong with the courier system and Aelius gets his letter. Bassano, however, doesn’t…

That horrible sinking sensation

I’ve read this book before. A few times. And that’s before the reread. Surprise, right? But every single time, this chapter is where my stomach does that horrible “swallowed a live bat” thing. That moment where the letter misses Bassano is the moment where everything shifts, where, I, as a reader, am clued in to the fact that it all isn’t going to be ok at the end.

Why is this? I mean, Bassano’s not dead. Aelius is a badass—he basically stormed Mavortis with a handful of men in a previous chapter, so with thousands… Basso is ragged, but things are still (somehow) ticking over. Superficially, there’s nothing going on here that’s any more or less tense than any other situation in which Basso has been involved.

But… there are differences. First, and I’m going to paraphrase that great philosopher, Stalin, in that one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. The plague was awful. The war is terrible (more so, through the eyes of Bassano). But, although tense, none of this has the same emotional impact of a threat to Bassano—the one person that Basso loves. Bassano is a person that we’ve grown to value, almost unavoidably, as he’s seen through the (rose-tinted) view of Basso. Similarly, as the reader, we’re sort of inextricably connected to Basso at this point—his fraught state when writing to Bassano resonates with us.

Second, and this is a slightly more detached view of the situation: this is the first time that Basso’s luck has failed him. Generally the bad things that happen are evil plans and schemes (complicated assassination attempts involving a ballista, a plague, a plot to raid the Mint that was a year in the making…), never the result of just, you know, something going weirdly wrong. In fact, he’s always relied on his good luck to bail him out—which is why he tests it on the eve of the war. The courier screwing up is just good ol’ fashioned rotten luck. And, as a reader, that warns us that everything is up for grabs.

How’s the prince doing?

“Somewhere there’s a grand overarching plan, of which Bassano standing round and watching is a fundamental and indefeasible part.” (400)

“The truth is, you can’t just observe a war.” (401)

“Because of a conscious decision by you, people are dying who needn’t die.” (401)

“What could possibly justify doing something like this on purpose?” (401)

“I guess, if the value you put on human beings sinks low enough, you stand a fair chance of establishing universal peace and prosperity. Bring those values down, and everyone can afford to be happy.” (417)

I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure that Bassano’s having fun. I realise that Basso’s plan was to send him off to war to a) become a hero and b) get a bit seasoned. But Bassano’s reaction is unpleasant. He’s become a better philosopher because of this, as well as a better student of human nature. Remember that Bassano took his “cowardice” during the Mint robbery to heart, and responded by throwing himself into martial prowess. Now he’s fretting about standing about and watching people die—with only his own introspection as a companion. How is this going to change him?

I’m personally of the school of thought that Bassano’s not the shining paragon that Basso thinks he is (see: Chapter 12). I think Basso also overvalues Bassano’s strength of character. The war is clearly changing him—is this more or less than the “plan” requires?


And… on family:

When talking to Melsuntha about the twins:

“They’re not me.” The force behind the statement took him by surprise. (409)

Nothing new here—we know that Basso doesn’t really consider the twins to be “his.” If anything, he keeps looking for excuses to claim that they aren’t even his own children. At his most self-aware, he understands that he disassociates himself from his children because of his wife. But this isn’t his most self-aware, and he’s merely surprised (again) by how much they aren’t “him.”

Race essentialism

Basso has a hilarious tour of the local culture as he tries to recruit more men. It is an interesting and, I believe subversive, view of the sort of race essentialism normally found in the fantasy genre. For example, all dwarves are beardy, hard-drinking miners; all orcs are evil; all Thulls are stupid and Drasnians are shifty. (I’m looking at you, Eddings!) This goes wrong because—shock—all people aren’t the same. This goes very wrong because fantasy also tends to use real world analogues and/or subtext, e.g. all Murgos are evil and suspiciously Chinese. RACEFAIL in a nutshell.

Anyway, similar to last week’s mirrored cultural snobbery (Vesani/Mavortine and Vesani/Empire), we have Basso simultaneously broadening and narrowing his outlook. He’s surprised that the Hus are so cultured, yet also buys into the theories that all Jazyges and Blemmyans are “simple” (which, given that Antigonus was Jazygite should already be triggering alarms in Basso’s head). (See Chapter Two and the comments for more about these “simple” people.)

Basically, Basso—as a representative of the Vesani culture—is being dumb. It is another little (humorous) warning flag that the world isn’t quite as straightforward as Basso expects it to be. Bodes ill, doesn’t it?

What is that one mistake?

We started the discussion about this last week, and, I don’t know about you, but I’m scrutinizing every one of Basso’s actions to see if it was “the” mistake. We have a couple more options here.

One: “I should have pulled the plug when [Antigonus] died.” (409)

This feels minor, honestly. Basso is irked that Tragazes isn’t quite the master manipulator that Antigonus was, but, given the issues at hand, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Maybe Antigonus could’ve spotted another way out of the financial difficulties, but the paper money scheme is more than enough—Basso’s got all of his eggs in one basket: the war. Antigonus wouldn’t make a difference.

Two: “Because I love her, I can’t refuse her anything, and what she wants is to hate me.”


“There was just one admirable thing he’d done—one honest thing—and the only other person who’d ever know about it hated him enough to want to see him dead. And therein, it pleased him to think, lies the true magnificence of Basso the Magnificent; his one honest thing, his only failure, the one thing he wanted and told himself he couldn’t have.” (410-11)

It seems to me that the second quote is talking about the first: the on-going contest between Basso and Lina. Basso lets Lina hate him because it makes her happy. But she knows he’s doing it. And he knows that she knows… To Basso, his one failure is his relationship with his sister. He thinks he could engineer it so that they are friends again. But he knows that’s not what she wants, so he deliberately fails, and lets her have her way.

I’m not sold on this, either. There’s a difference between an intentionally-constructed failure and an actual mistake. I am somewhat convinced that Basso’s “one mistake” is something around Lina—I’m just not sure that “letting her fight with him” is the thing.

Three: His appraisal of Bassano. (As discussed above.)

If anything, I’m leaning towards the Basso/Bassano relationship as Basso’s mistake. He has a vision of the Good Prince that, I think, is neither accurate nor fair. Two of the reasons that Basso gives for his imperial plan: he wants to give it to Bassano; he thinks Bassano is the right man for the job. In both cases, these reasons are predicated on false assumptions of Bassano’s flawlessness. Don’t get me wrong, I like Bassano—a lot—but he might not be… perfect.

Next week, the gut-punching continues… steel yourself.

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

  • “The Salt Brotherhood”—closest thing to a Cazar representative in the Republic, also a cool name if we ever do a “Brothers Without Banners” style thing. Just saying.
  • Hus / Jazyges / Blemmyans—sort of a tour of the different people in this chapter although, as noted above, I’m not sure how accurate it is.
  • Dulichean heresy—Basso mentions this as a conversation topic, in the same breath as Mannerist architecture.
  • Paradoxes of Ethical Theory by Polydectus—Bassano’s reading material is really dry.

Jared Shurin is getting very upset about the way this is turning out.


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