Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: The Hammer

When I picked up The Hammer, I had it in my mind that it would be my first K.J. Parker novel.  Well, a quick glance at the "By K.J. Parker" page jogged the clanky machinery inside my head.  Turns out, a few years ago, long before Battle Hymns, I read Colours in the Steel.  If my flaky memory is any indication as to how much I enjoyed that novel, I would say that it was forgettable to say that least.  So, with further scrabbling through the dark recesses of my memory I dredged up every little scrap I could recall about Colours in the Steel.  I came up with the main character's name, Bardas, I believe, something about fencing, some blurry details about how realistic the story was, not necessarily gritty per se, but real.   And lastly some very detailed, descriptions about the forging of swords...Now, please bear in mind that my memory is HIGHLY suspect, and Colours in the Steel may quite possibly be about none of those things, I merely put that little tid-bit out there to say that my memory of the past, complete with major gaps and blank spots, echoed, and played with my expectations, as I read The Hammer.

The first great thing about The Hammer is that it is a stand alone novel.  I actively seek out stand alone fantasy books these days as I have enough fantasy series started, and yet unfinished to make my head spin.  I'd been wanting to try out something by Parker for awhile now (at this point I thought Parker was a new author to me), and the cover caught my attention, as fantasy with guns is an idea that causes excitement in me.  The plot also caught my attention.   

The Hammer has a colonial setting and probably occurs during the equivalent of the Renaissance era, (history however, like remembering things, is not my strong suit).  In this novel, a group of settlers have set up a small struggling colony on an island.  The colonists share the island with two other distinct groups: the indigenous "savages" and the met'Oc, a once noble family who have been exiled to the island for their role in a long distant civil war.  The met'Oc have a strained relationship with the colonists.  The met'Oc have a large land holding high up on a bluff, but are too proud to trade or interact with the lowly commoners, so when they need something they go on raids and steal what they need from the poor farmers.  The colonists tolerate the occasional raids because they know the met'Oc posses some powerful weaponry, and assume the met'Oc would protect them should the savages, who greatly outnumber the colonists, ever decide to attack.  

For the most part, the story focuses on Gignomai, the youngest brother in the current generation of met'Oc.  Gignomai is a bit of a black sheep in the family, and is prone to sneaking off and cavorting with the colonists.  This is tolerated when Gignomai is a kid, but when he gets older it creates a schism between him and his overbearing father.  Eventually, the control his father tries to exert over Gignomai becomes too much, and Gignomai flees, setting into motion a scheme that will change the colony, and the lives of every soul on the island.

It is interesting to me that the few things I remembered about Colours in the Steel; the main character, realistic story, and in-depth knowledge of certain trades during the historical time frame, were all strong characteristics of The Hammer as well.

In the realm of characters, Parker did quite well.  Gignomai, and many of the other supporting characters are very interesting to read, and their motivations and actions are very true to the type of person they are.  The Hammer isn't a very action packed novel, and instead focuses on the characters and why they do what they do.  The nice thing is that as a reader, I actually cared for them, and fretted over their actions.   Unlike many writers, Parker did not just develop two or three characters then let the other supporting characters fade to obscurity.  Instead he/she (?) created a strong cast of characters that are all quite interesting in their own way.

The plot itself was also quite solid.  There was a nice "air of the mysterious" to it, as for much of the novel you only get little snippets as to what exactly Gignomai is up to.  The variety of character's interests and desires made the plot a total toss-up as I had no idea what the final outcome would end up being.  This made for an enjoyable read.  I should add that though the plot has a lot of ins and outs, Parker does a good job of keeping everything clear and doesn't disorient the reader with unnecessary detail.

Lastly, as I read I got a strong sense that Parker put a lot of research into The Hammer.  The colonial setting has a very authentic feel to it, and the tools, and machinery and such all feel like they fit perfectly in the setting.  Parker's descriptions of how the flint-lock pistols and rifles operate was a nice touch too.  There was a fairly good deal of pre-industrial technology at work in this novel, and Parker's knowledge of these things shined in the narrative. 

I guess I could call this my second, first K.J. Parker experience.  It was a pretty good one too.  I didn't fall head over heals for this book, but I felt it was a strong novel, with many good qualities.  I'm not instantly slavering to get my hands on everything K.J. Parker, but I have a good sense that I'll read some more from Parker in the future.  All told, The Hammer is a strong book, with very few, if any, fantasy elements, so I think it could appeal to a pretty wide range of readers.  A solid early 2011 release.

Grade: B-


Seak (Bryce L.) said...

I have the Engineer trilogy and as soon as I get my "for review" pile a little further away from toppling over, it'll be at the top of my reading list.

(BTW, this review was featured on: http://www.facebook.com/?ref=hp#!/tordotfantasy)

Ryan said...

Whoa! Thanks for the linkage! That's pretty cool.