Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Sixteen

Last chapter was all about raising the stakes. Bassano and Aelius are wandering around the woods of Mavortis with the entire Vesani army. If they win, all is well. If they lose, Basso’s a ruined man—emotionally, politically, financially… and the repercussions could bring down the entire Republic.

Chapter Fifteen treated us to an endless procession of Basso’s “band-aids,” as he kept everything together whilst waiting for the news. And the end of the chapter? News!

Chapter Sixteen: “You’re the reason that explains and justifies me”


As Bassano writes, “Aelius is dead. We won.” (458)

And here’s the detail…

The column went marching into the forest, following the long road that cuts all the way through the woods. It was hot, miserable and exhausting. More so when the Mavortines started popping up and chucking javelins at them. Initially, this was just silly. But as the javelin-chucking got more and more frequent and more and more serious, the Vesani/Cazar army grew more and more fraught.

After six days of constant marching, dodging javelins and no sleep, the Mavortines finally (properly) attacked. First, they dropped some trees on the invading army. Then they threw a lot of javelins. Finally, they waded in with axes and hacked everyone to bits. It was a massacre, and Aelius—as well as the rest of the command staff—were all killed. (No surprise there—the Mavortines, Bassano pointed out, had spent a week figuring out the marching order.)

Some poor colonel, suddenly at the head of the line, goes sprinting around looking for anyone-that’s-not-him to take the command. He runs into Bassano, who, unable to come up with a reasonable counter-argument, winds up in control of the army.

Bassano’s first move? Get off the road. He rallies the rest of the men and punches through the line of Mavortine javelin-throwers. The men are saved… and also, well, they’re lost in the woods.

That’s not great news. Bassano does his best to lead his army out of the woods—they’ve eluded the attackers and the last thing they want is to re-engage. But due to a complete accident of luck (!), they wind up travelling in a huge circle. The Mavortines are busy destroying all the Vesani supply wagons (and finishing off and impaling all the fallen Vesani) when one of Bassano’s scouts spots them. Bassano has his men circle around the unsuspecting Mavortines, and then a new massacre begins. The Vesani forces annihilate the Mavortines. Total losses from both encounters: 4,657 Vesani/Cazar, 27,000+ Mavortines. The Mavortine threat is ended. Thoroughly.

Bassano’s men are without food, water and supplies, and have a hard time of it. The best he can do is get them staggering back out of the woods, carrying broken pot shards filled with muddy water. Again, good luck: they run into the Mavortine non-combatants, the wives and children of the men they just killed. Bassano’s men charge and scare them off, then pick up all their fallen supplies. The Vesani army is saved (although Bassano spares a moment to think about what the Mavortines will have to eat… and then another moment to browbeat himself for not feeling the least bit guilty).

Aelius died with a fortune of 6,000 nomismata. As his lawyer says, that’s a substantial estate for someone of his background. From Basso’s point of view, that’s a trifle. And a weirdly pathetic one for a) his best friend and b) someone who had saved the Vesani Republic on numerous occasions. There’s a bit of fussing around with the money: Basso doesn’t want it. But thanks to his own laws, there’s almost no way he can refuse to inherit it. Basso vows to rethink how the army gets paid, and then feels sheepish because he knows he’ll never do anything about it.

The House unanimously agrees with Basso’s motion to make Bassano commander-in-chief.

Basso then pours his heart out into a letter to Bassano. Humorously, it sounds like Bassano’s getting some nicknames—“Golden Boy,” “The Fighting Toff,” “Camels’ Balls” (477). Basso says a lot of stuff, but basically that he’s always believed that “right” is what happens in the end. None of that “sides” stuff that Bassano has been spouting, but that there’s a certain inevitability to things. He writes about reasons and luck and stuff, which is very handy for those trying to wrap up all the book’s themes in, say, the second-to-last chapter.

Needless to say, Basso is a happy, happy man. He’s gutted about Aelius (we assume), but his schemes are back on track, his beloved nephew is alive (and a hero) and all is well. He says as much, puts it in a letter and sends it to Bassano with the fastest possible courier.

The courier goes to Mavortis (quickly) and comes back (just as rapidly). Plague. Everyone’s dead. Including Bassano.

War stories

There’s a whole side piece (largely ignored by this re-read, oops) comparing the “fantasy of war” in Parker to other authors in the genre. I think Parker deconstructs the illusion of martial glory just as thoroughly as s/he does the idea of fate and “the chosen one.”

In Chapter Fourteen, Bassano stressed how dull and dehumanising war was—for the sake of a few minutes of wild charging, you spent the rest of the day digging latrines and polishing your armor. It is exhausting and boring—and also not something we ever see in any other secondary world fiction.

Contrast this to say, Sanderson’s The Way of Kings’ training sequences for the bridging crews (as an epic fantasy example) or even Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game’s battle school (for science fiction). In both, the reader is given the sense that war isn’t all about fighting and there’s a lot of physically exhausting labour that goes into it. Yet, also in both, the jaw-dropping ‘splodey action sequences are what constitute 99% of the book and 99% of the reader’s impression. Even the training is cool and fighty. Parker goes about this the other way—there are battles, but they’re overshadowed by the misery of the military existence. The constant fear, trudging, marching, building, polishing, looting, fear (again), boredom, etc. etc.

And, on fear:

“Then you see something move in among the trees (probably just a pig or an elk) and suddenly you really wish you had twice as much metal underwear, plus a shield the size of a door, plus a chain-mail gusset on your trouser fly.” (459)

I love this.

Also this:

“If I ever do become First Citizen, I shall have all gradients lined up against the wall and shot.” (460)

Anachronistic, but funny.

Still, nothing is as awesome as this:

“Posterity doesn’t need to know about me shitting in the woods.” (459)

The wisdom of Bassano, right? But, as funny as it is, it is also a wonderful encapsulation of The Folding Knife as a historical (or pseudo-historical) document. Posterity cares about the big speeches and the dramatic votes and the battles and the maps and the, etc. etc. Posterity doesn’t need to know—doesn’t want to know—about the bowel movements. The Folding Knife presents this in reverse: the sequences in the House, the battles… they’re all quickly presented and then we get to the (metaphoric) pooping—what Basso was up to, what he ate, why he was being grumpy.

One of Bassano’s other witticisms—“I have a piece of paper that certifies that I’m invincible” (465)—also serves as pithy summation of the book as a whole. Basso’s elaborate strategy is great in theory. But when the metaphorical Mavortine is running at him, metaphorical axe in hand, it all goes crumbling away… (except he picks up the metaphorical club of luck and pulls it off anyway).

The Good Prince vs the Evil King

I know I’m obsessed with this particular point, but I think it is important. Here are Bassano’s near-final words:

“I know perfectly well what I’ve become, what I’ve turned into. Maybe it’s an effect of the place or the situation. Maybe, when I’m home again, I’ll get better. Right now, I really don’t care. No: rephrase, I really don’t mind. There’s a difference.” (471)

This is from the man that’s already coined his theory of “sides”—you pick one and you stick to it, for right or for wrong. Bassano has just admitted to sending his armed men against women and children in order to take their supplies and possibly sentence them to starvation in the woods. He’s confessed that he was ok with starving because, in a way, he’d taken a lot of Mavortines with him. Lives have become numbers to him—as he said in the previous chapter, he’s reduced their “value.” The horror comes from his self-awareness. I don’t think Bassano is going through Gothic posturing here.

Nor, would I argue, is this presenting a new side of his character. This is the man that bribed a rape victim in order to help out his (not particularly lovable) cousins, after all. But in Mavortis, he’s choosing sides / becoming aware of his sensibilities on an epic scale.

And, yet, here’s Basso, still clinging to the “bad cop” role:

“You know what I’m like with reasons. I think you’re the reason that explains and justifies me. I’ve done what I’ve done so you can follow on after me; and when people look back on me, in a hundred years’ time, they’ll say that Bassianus Severus was the necessary evil that made Bassianus Licinius possible; and that, just for once, the end absolved the means.” (477)

But… is this true? Basso’s the one that extended the franchise, invented new currency, brought in a new age of prosperity, battled the plague, led the country through several different wars (on various scales), and (almost) ruled an empire. Meanwhile, Bassano corrupted the course of justice, oversaw the Mint while it was robbed, and won a battle (accidentally) that was more like a brutal slaughter. Obviously these are extreme depictions of both their characters, but I think we’re seeing the extent of Basso’s narrative unreliability. He doesn’t just want Bassano to be the “good prince,” he needs him to be.

And the one mistake?

Last week, I proposed that Basso’s “one mistake” was sending Bassano into the forest. I’m still clinging to this one as the front-runner—“If anything had happened to you out there, I’d never have forgiven myself” (477)

Plus, Bassano, as noted above, is everything to Basso, not just his future (the empire, etc), but also his past. Basso explains that everything in his life has been about Bassano—since “the biggest thing I ever did… was killing your father and my wife… I tried to make sense of it by looking out for you.” (478) If Bassano succeeds, everything Basso has ever done is proven “right.” If Bassano fails (that is, if he’s chopped to bits in Mavortis), Basso is “wrong.”

Of course, that’s also a case that Basso’s biggest mistake was killing his wife and her lover, Basso’s father. This is what shaped the course of Basso’s life, and Bassano is only the means by which Basso can correct that mistake.

So which is more important? The original action (the murder)? Or the way he risks the negation of that action (sending Bassano to war)? I’m still arguing the latter as, ultimately, Basso is more emotionally connected to Bassano than he ever was to his wife. The stakes are higher for both him and the rest of the world.

But we’ll see… as one of our commenters has pointed out, there’s a third major mistake that doesn’t become apparent until the final chapter in the book.

Fate Points

This week is definitely running long, but there’s a lot of themes to cover! Our old friend luck (or fate) shows up again, as Basso confesses that “I don’t believe in luck, never have. I believe that things happen, and the good come out of them well and the bad badly.” (478)

This is a bit of a surprise: Basso’s spoken about his luck in the past, and he has certainly never seemed a religious man. But he’s also been quietly superstitious, back as early as the plague, when he used his mother’s (ridiculous) cures, even though he knew they wouldn’t work. He tested his luck on the eve of the Mavortine invasion, but, in hindsight, this still makes sense: Basso wasn’t testing his “luck,” he was testing if he was still “good,”

I really like this interpretation for a few different reasons:

  • It provides a subtle contrast to Bassano’s “you have a side” moral relativism. Basso isn’t saying that there are no moral absolutes. He’s actually saying that there’s a way to test them: if you’re good (on the “side of good,” perhaps?), you’ll win out in the end. If you’re not, you won’t. (Interestingly, Basso thinks of himself as not-good, but as long as he’s working to fulfil Bassano’s interests, he’s on the side of good—so if Bassano doesn’t win, he’s not good, and Basso’s, well, extra-bad.
  • Basso being a secret fatalist adds a great deal of depth to his character. We’ve been able to interpret him as both hero and villain, and, indeed, I’m still not sure where he really is in the great scheme of things. This adds to the complexity (and the truth) of that division: even Basso doesn’t know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy.
  • …which follows on to the third reason that I like this so much: the difference between this and traditional fantasy. Basso has no idea if he’s fighting the Evil Power or if he is the Evil Power. Contrast that with the absolute certainty of a Belgarion (whose question is never “am I?” but “why me?”). Plus, if Basso is a believer in destiny, and he does pull stunts like burning incense and gambling binges… it is an audacious interpretation of the Chosen One I’ve ever read. A Chosen One that consciously, scientifically, and with great self-awareness tests his own Chosenness. This is wonderful—the high fantasy “vote of no confidence”—like, I don’t know, King Arthur drawing the sword from the stone every six or seven weeks, just to check that he’s still the best monarch for the land.

That’s all very fun… almost enough to make up for the fact that all of Basso’s friends and family are dead.

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

I got nothing. Boo.

Jared Shurin is going to mourn the hell out of Aelius. Bassano? Not so much.


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