‘“Right,” Joiauz said, in a rather high voice. “Let’s start with the war, shall we?”’
I’m not sure whether all writers consciously play with SF using specific materials or not. Do they all know where the story is going or do they just make it up as they go along? Sometimes we get clever writers; sometimes intellectuals, and sometimes emotional ones. My kind of writer is the one we get the feeling does not know where things are headed. This kind of writer when starts out to write, a lot of times does not know where things are going to go and is not clear what the lead character’s voice has to say. Art, and writing in particular, is the means the writer has of reaching transcendence. When I’m reading J. K. Parker’s work I always get the feeling the right tone of voice (and sometimes the ending), is a matter of emotional focus, imposed by the needs of the story rather than by considerations of publisher expectations or markets, or by conscious attempts to subvert those expectations. K. J. Parker (Tom Holt in high-revving mode), market or publisher demands become essentially irrelevant to the way the story is being told. In my mind, the best SF is not straight fantasy, straight Science Fiction, straight Dark Fiction, or Mundane Fiction. The writers that are able to transcend either genre are the ones who recombine or tease out elements of all those genres to really good effect. Parker writes, seems to me, as if there are no conventions to be followed; rather only the cognitive and emotional effects of his stories are important. This fact alone is what makes Parker write superior SF and not the crap that we see coming out of the Nebula and Hugo ballots.
After getting that out of the way, this is not the best Parker has ever written. He has written much better stuff, but even 2nd rate Parker is better than some of SF fodder being published nowadays under the speculative label. Where did Parker start missing the train? When he relied a little too strongly on coincidence or unbelievable setups, as well in some of the info-dumps in which, for instance, the Aram Chantat political system is explained. The operative phrase here is “not at his best.” Even so and in today’s SF landscape not many writers are able to write the way Parker does, even when he’s not at his best: a particular passage comes to mind when some of the characters are passing through the countryside in a carriage and there's a bit about how the land looks so long after the devastating effects of the war, i.e., the way it changed the landscape in a way that all traces are obscured and in some cases utterly obliterated. I can't do the prose justice; you just have to read it. Parker is almost always able to weave the meticulous details of world building into the Story without turning it into pulp fiction. Thank God, Parker is still resisting introducing magic into his books. Let’s see how long it lasts…
SF = Speculative Fiction.