I read this book in January 2011, when I was only just finding my feet with reviewing. I mention below that it’s unlike anything else I’ve read, and four years later that’s still true. A strange but (for me) compelling book. As fantasy, it has no magic at all – or has it? I gave it four stars, and I still think that’s the right rating for me.
I loved this book. I had no expectations going in, and had never read anything by this author before, but it was mentioned as a good fantasy book, I sampled it on the Kindle, and liked it, although it’s totally unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It is a slow book to get into, but there came a point about a third of the way in where I stopped trying to follow the details of the plot (they’re not relevant) and simply sat back and enjoyed the ride.
The protagonist, Basso, is essentially a businessman who ends up running his country on business principles – everything is about commodities and loans and making sure everyone makes a profit. If this sounds dull, it isn’t at all, so long as you don’t agonise over the minutiae. This is actually the funniest book I’ve read in ages. How Basso contrives his deals, and turns even potentially disastrous situations into winning moves is where all the entertainment comes from.
As a fantasy novel, the book is unconventional, to say the least. There is no magic in evidence at all, unless you count Basso’s exceptional (and unexplained) degree of luck, there are no heroes or demons, and the wars are mostly a matter of logistics. But the world in the background, while sketchily described and not wholly convincing, is certainly not any known historical backdrop, despite its superficial resemblance to classical Roman times.
One point which still puzzles me is the title. The folding knife, an artifact which arrived in Basso’s life the day he was born, and has a role in the defining event of his life, does not appear to be significant in any other way. I’m not sure whether it’s meant to be symbolic of his weathy, upper class life, or represents the baggage from his family, or whether it’s no more than a convenient hook on which to hang the plot. Either way, it seems a flimsy construct.
The ending is slightly ambiguous. It seems like Basso’s extraordinary luck has finally run out, and everything comes crashing down around his ears. On the other hand, in the midst of catastrophe, he manages to escape the city without incident. Given that he is the most famous man around (his head is on the coins, after all), and half the city wants his head on a pike, this is nothing short of miraculous. Only two people recognise him, and the second offers him an anonymous job in a neighbouring country – a perfect escape.
So I’m inclined to believe that his luck is holding, and in fact the whole disaster is actually the best possible outcome for Basso, by releasing him from his past, the ties of family and always doing what was expected of him. Perhaps this is a necessary step for him to be truly free. There is possibly another book in this – after Basso the Magnificent, Basso the clerk. But until the author writes it, the reader is left to choose his or her own ending – Basso lived out his days blamelessly as a clerk, Basso became head of the Auxentine Empire… Either would work.
This book wouldn’t suit everyone, both the writing style and plot are unconventional, to put it mildly, but I enjoyed it hugely.