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Saevus Corax

Saevus Corax Deals with the Dead, Saevus Corax Captures the Castle, Saevus Corax Gets Away With Murder by K. J. Parker

Orbit, paperback, £9.99

Reviewed by Stephen Frame

There’s been a battle. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are dead on a field/moor/steppe/wherever. Did you ever wonder who cleans up the mess afterwards? This is what Saevus Corax and his less-than-trusty band of men do – battlefield salvage. Now, this struck me as a great starting point for a fantasy novel. It’s an original and fresh idea. But the author takes it further. This is a business; different salvage outfits bid for contracts to clean up after battles, then go on to re-sell whatever they collect from the dead. It’s little bits and pieces of world-building like this which make the Corax trilogy so readable. Though skillfully rendered, it’s not your usual fantasy world. There’s no magic, no mythical beasts, no mad gods wandering around. Instead, we get snippets of geography, politics, culture, and history sprinkled throughout the story, all serving to make this world utterly believable.

So, in this world, we have Saevus Corax. A great character, something of an anti-hero, because Saevus is a liar and a cheat and wouldn’t hesitate to do the dirty on anyone if it will turn a profit. He’s also clever, forgiving of his employees’ many failings and not that fond of violence. Unless it gets him out of a tricky situation. And that’s what the trilogy is essentially about. Tricky situations. These are caper stories. Because life is always throwing Saevus a bum deal.

In the first book, his past catches up with him. Not his second past, when he wrote plays for a living. His first past. The one he fled and has been running from ever since. Now that the past has found him clapped him in the irons and holds a knife to his throat. How will Saevus escape the inescapable?

In the second book, he has to capture an impregnable castle. Only without an army to help him. Then he has to journey through a country where no foreigners are allowed, and any that are found are cooked and eaten. Then in the third book . . . I think you get the picture. How will Saevus make it through and still come up smelling of roses? Or at least richer than when he started. You really want to stick around to find out.

 In keeping with the caper theme, there is a droll, sometimes gallows, humour to these books, which sets the tone just right. That said, there are dark moments too. And some up-lifting ones as well. These books are great light reading, with more than enough plot twists to keep you turning the page. On the minus side, there is a fair amount of description of travelling, which does little to advance the plot. The second book, in particular, does suffer more from this, and it feels like the books would perhaps benefit from being shorter, but there’s enough good stuff here that you can forgive these sins. Thoroughly enjoyable. And not a dragon or wizard in sight.

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