This review was published in Vector 268
The Hammer by KJ Parker
In most fantasy novels Gignomai met’Oc – the Loki-ish third son of a great aristocratic clan – would be the novel’s shadowy villain. He steals from his family and skives off from his duties, he lies and cheats and he plots the destruction of his stronger and more noble brothers. He becomes a murderer and, perhaps worse, brings evil to a native society that had lived in peaceful harmony for generations. Gignomai met’Oc destroys everything he touches, even as he brings a social and industrial revolution to the backwards colony to which he, and his family, have been banished.
So it says much about the games KJ Parker is playing here that in The Hammer, Gignomai is – if hardly the hero – then certainly the novel’s major protagonist standing squarely in the spotlight’s glare and reflecting light into the meaner corners of human nature.
Fantasy has been cast as a conservative genre that deals in consolation and the consolidation of the status quo. The Hammer proves that it need not be anything of the kind. Indeed far from providing a fantasy of consolation Parker has written a brutal novel in which every character ends up in some way complicit with the conduct of evil. And, by creating characters that the reader empathises with, characters that (despite what they do) we like, Parker makes us complicit as well. We are drawn into a situation where the moral certainties that we expect in fantasy settings become meaningless labels rather than helpful directions. We want Gignomai to “win” – to complete his quest, to be revealed as the hero – even as we are repelled by the actions his gifts, his fate and his history make inevitable.
The Hammer shares the basic outline of a standard coming-of-age fantasy. Gignomai is a young man from an impoverished but noble background who is forced out into the world to pursue his destiny. He has his “quest” – a struggle to take revenge for an evil that has been done – and he certainly possesses the attributes of a fantasy hero: fearlessness, determination and intelligence. But make no mistake, Gignomai met’Oc is a monster. In his defence it might be argued that he has been made a monster by his family, still his actions are calculating and cold-blooded and he has few compunctions about the way in which his schemes encompass and damage the innocent.
The Hammer is excellent but my admiration is not without caveats. I didn’t like the representation of the native people – their utopian purity was too philosophically convenient to be convincing – and ultimately I couldn’t quite reconcile myself to Parker’s flinty view of human nature. I could never quite abandon all hope. Still, Parker writes with a piercing clarity, the novel is tightly plotted and feels precisely focussed throughout. With plausibly constructed social, scientific and engineering detail and an utter absence of magic or dragons, Parker has written a fantasy novel for sf fans. A complete, satisfying, standalone novel by an author of considerable talent The Hammer is highly recommended.