KJ Parker

Orbit (2011)

ISBN: 978 1 84149 914 9

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

The Hammer is set on an alternate world, very similar to Earth. A noble family has been exiled to a farming colony. The colony’s level of industrialisation is kept low because of the settlement agreements. The people there prior to the colony are a completely unknown factor, even seventy years into the met’Oc family’s exile. The youngest son of the met’Oc does his own thing, going against his father’s will, changing the future for everyone.

Overall, this is an enjoyable book. It has a good pace, some nice story telling and some solid worldbuilding. While it’s believable, I say this with certain caveats.

The Hammer uses a narrative style that’s so simple and clear it pushes the feel of the novel towards young adult (even when it’s obviously not). It doesn’t delve into the whys and wherefores (beyond the superficial) of the quite complex actions characters undertake. In other words, it simplifies somewhat. While this makes it an easy read, it means that the story doesn’t linger. I felt no compulsion to step into the world and see what other stories lay in hiding – everything is framed around the development of Gignomai (the met’Oc youngest son) and his personal desires and the effect these have on everything in his immediate vicinity.

While this simplification is mainly in the presentation (the vocabulary, the sentence structure), it’s also in its use of some pretty standard features for the scene-setting. The colonists learn political sophistication when circumstances (and that youngest scion of an old family) force them; the colonial agreements are exceptionally straightforward and there aren’t many complications arising from them; the indigenous people are delineated in bold brush (although there are hints at complexity, whenever it comes to action, that action is uncomplicated) and so on. It reminds me (since everything is reminding me a bit of something else right now) of some of Orson Scott Card’s work. There is a misunderstood genius who can change everything. There is a corrupt society (more than one). There are broad-brush sweeping results.

One of the reasons the novel is less complex than it could have been is because the female characters are not as well realised as the male. Even those who have important parts to play are delineated sketchily and are seen more for their impact on the leading male characters than as people in their own right. This is despite the fact that Parker says quite specifically in the novel that this woman did as much work and was as important as her husband, or her brother, or her cousin. It’s halfway to equal. That halfway means that the township and the met’Oc homestead and even the strange couple who appear and set everything awry lack the depth they could have had. It doesn’t help that every single instance of women having sex without the permission of their menfolk leads to disaster. Men die too in the novel, but the focus on the women is that they need to be especially virtuous or they will pay, and that, apart from this, the real content of the story is the lives of the menfolk. It’s a significant improvement on equivalent novels written a generation ago, but a great deal of depth and understanding could have been written in if just a little more flesh and reality had been given to the women of the novel.

As a traditional young-boy-changes-things fantasy goes, this is an enjoyable one. Its base is technology and colonialisation rather than magic and the concepts it presents are very easy to grasp. I found its flaws frustrating, even as I enjoyed the novel as a whole.