Well. That was different.
It's really hard to say much at all about my impressions of The Company by K.J. Parker without giving away far more of the story than I generally like to in a book review. So if you want to read this book and like to go in with few preconceived notions, I suggest you read only the next paragraph and then quit.
The Company is purportedly fantasy, but the only "fantastic" element is the fact that it takes place in an undefined country in an undefined time, although the culture and technology are clearly that of late medieval Europe, minus any mention of religion. That might be its greatest claim to being a fantasy as opposed to an alternate history. The book is more a psychological drama, centered on General Teuche Kunessin and four men who are the survivors of the A Company, an elite group of pikers, legendary for their skills in a military role close to that of a suicide squad. The war has been over for seventeen years and Kunessin returns to his home village to reassemble his former mates and found an idyllic colony on an island he has managed to procure. Once on the island, things do not go as planned. The long-forged bonds between fighting men who faced death together countless times are powerful, but they are tested to the limit.
Parker's writing is powerful, especially in the beginning, when he (I'm assuming it's a he, because the writing feels masculine to me. Parker is a pseudonym.) evokes the bonds between men in a marvellously indirect way. He creates an enormous amount of sympathy for the men and Kunessin in particular and made me very curious as to what would come of them and their project to form a colony. He then takes the rather unusual tack of whittling away that sympathy, by gradually turning over one rock at a time and exposing the nasty creatures underneath, until about two-thirds of the way through, I had pretty much lost the motivation to read on. I stalled, quite frankly, and if had been a library book instead of a purchased one, I don't know that I would have picked it up again. Your mileage may vary. I eventually did get to the end, wondering how the author would recreate sympathy for the characters. Suffice it to say he didn't.
Three reasons you might like this book
1. You like a dark, gritty, complex read. Having said that, if you're looking for explicit sex (or any sex for that matter beyond a couple of oblique references) or gory violence, you're not going to get much. The grit here is all located in the human soul. Don't look for facile stereotypes; you won't find them. Even the women, who are secondary or tertiary characters and therefore painted with few strokes, cannot be reduced to single characteristics.
2. You admire a writer who is in command of his craft. Parker evokes emotions, he doesn't name them or wallow in them, thereby making them all the more powerful. I found his descriptions well-done too, never glaze-inducing. A sentence or two of carefully chosen words create the picture of a character or a setting in our minds, without ever over-loading the tolerance of description-averse readers like myself. If anything, it could have used more, and that's not something you'll hear me say very often!
3. You appreciate accuracy in technical and military detail. Parker has done his homework, and it shows. He doesn't go into the interminable detail that Tom Clancy does, but I suspect that you'd be hard-put to find errors in his engineering, science, or military technology. Not that I checked, but it had the ring of truth.
Three reasons you might not like this book
1. You like a happy ending. You won't get it.
2. You want to really engage emotionally with a character. This might be the book's greatest weakness. Parker systematically demolishes the connections you might feel with the A Company till you hardly even want them to succeed. The women had huge potential here, but he failed to exploit it. His tendency to understate emotion did him a disservice, as he shied away from emotional issues that could have provided powerful fuel for the plot. Judging from the obvious skill that Parker writes with, I can't help but think that this was a conscious choice. I think it was ill-advised.
3. One or two of the plot points felt rather contrived to me, in particular the events that centered around a mentally imbalanced wife. I can't say more without giving away too much, but it felt pretty gratuitous to me, no matter how much it had been foreshadowed.
Three paragraphs from page 33
"You do that," Kunessin said. "Tell him it'll be cash, no bills or letters, just silver money. That ought to make a difference, I'm sure."
The old man studied him for a while. "I thought you said you were in the army," he said. "Where'd you get that kind of money?"
Kunessin smiled. "From dead people," he said. "A great many of them. I'm at the Glory; leave a message for me there as soon as you've talked to this man, all right?"