Devices and Desires: K.J. Parker

★★★★½

The Engineer Trilogy: Book I

With a long trip looming, I was hunting for the perfect book: something with engaging characters, brilliant world-building and a plot I could really get my teeth into. Fate must have been listening, because it brought me face to face with this unassuming-looking volume. For the last week, this has been my constant companion: a deliciously rich tale of intrigue and vengeance; love, loyalty and friendship; and clashing cultures. It’s shelved under fantasy because it takes place in a place not registered on any map of our world, but there isn’t a speck of magic in it. Anchored in technological experimentation and political strife, this is a superb story of human ambition – and how one small act can ripple out to bring down civilisations and change history for ever.

It all begins because a father wants to make a special toy for his little girl. In doing so, Ziani Vaatzes makes certain mechanical additions to a doll. When his actions are brought to the attention of the Guilds, he is arrested on charges of abomination – of seeking to improve the Specifications which govern all engineering and construction in the Mezentine Republic. To suggest that the Specifications can be improved is treason; to actually do it is to challenge the entire basis of order upon which the Empire exists. Vaatzes is condemned to death, a fate that he escapes only with a sudden burst of energy. Suddenly at large, in a world where abominators are hunted down and killed by the Republic’s assassins, he seeks protection. This comes in an unexpected form: in the shape of the Eremian army, just straggling back home after a decisive defeat by the Republic itself. Vaatzes is astonished to find how backward this society is and, as one of the Republic’s leading engineers, he realises that he is in a position to help them. He offers his services to develop their technological capacity, realising at the same time that this primitive nation might just give him leverage to get a new plan underway…

While Duke Osrea of Eremia puzzles over his new Mezentian refugee, he has other issues on his mind. Peace has only recently been declared with the neighbouring dukedom of the Vadani and these two traditional enemies are settling into their awkward new truce. And the problem is, Osrea doubts himself. He knows that he isn’t up to his job, which he’s inherited by virtue of having married the last Duke’s daughter, Veatriz. He loves his wife, but isn’t quite sure why she loves him. And he values his best friend, Miel Ducas, enormously but hasn’t ever been able to shake off a childhood resentment of Miel for doing everything so much better, for being a better soldier, for being so unfailingly attractive to women, for being so loyal and compassionate. Why, if Miel is better at everything, can’t he just be Duke and let Orsea live in peace? For their parts, Veatriz and Miel watch their beloved Osrea floundering, knowing his flaws only too well, and trying to think of a way to give this diffident statesman some faith in himself.

Across the mountains, their young and dynamic neighbour, Duke Valens of the Vadani, quietly evaluates his own power. Valens is a nightmare enemy: thoughtful, bright, a capital hunter and fencer, shrewd and impressively well-informed. And yet, for reasons he wouldn’t dream of admitting to anyone, he has no plans to attack Eremia in the near future. Because Eremia, annoyingly, happens to be the home of the woman he loves and – in lieu of winning said lady for himself, which would be difficult for a whole host of diplomatic reasons – he just wants to make her happy. Not that Valens is a cuddly sort of person. Far from it. He’s ruthless in ways that Osrea wouldn’t even dream of. But he has a flaw. A weakness. And, for someone who knows how things work – how people work – that weakness is there to be exploited, and to form a cog in a new machine…

There’s so much politics and intrigue here that you could cut it with a knife: everywhere you look there are committee meetings, secret messengers, misunderstood intentions and the quiet pulling of strings, attached to people who don’t even realise they’re puppets. And you know what I loved so much about the world-building? We’re not in our world, not even in an alternate version of our world, but the cultures that Parker creates feel so recognisable. The names, for example, seem to be very carefully thought out, to the point where you can predict which nationality someone is before you’re even told. Helpfully, there are broad linguistic parallels with our cultures: the Mezentines are a blend of Greek, Byzantine and Venetian; the Eremians and Vadani are Italian, Occitan and Latin, with a dash of Spanish here and there.

It’s refreshing to read speculative fiction which has a more technological bent: Parker’s world is, essentially, standard-issue medieval, but he thinks very carefully about the cultural differences between his civilisations and how this affects their military style. While the Mezentines are methodical and precise (they have a committee for everything, largely to enable them to have more meetings) and can turn out a raft of damaging war engines at high speed, they’re vulnerable to cavalry charges; while the Vadani, born and bred to the hunt, can whip up an armoured charge but are floored by siege weapons. I enjoyed myself immensely, trying to figure out exactly what Parker’s war machines were meant to be. I judged that the scorpions were a form of advanced ballista, and was thrilled when the Mezentines turned out to have trebuchets (though not named as such). It’s a rare book (or film) which can’t be improved by the addition of a trebuchet.

And the characterisation is fantastic (did I say that already?). Parker doesn’t indulge in long paragraphs of description – unless he’s reciting sections of Guild lore, where the mind-numbing detail and lack of imagination is the entire point, showing the stultifying atmosphere that can warp a creative mind into a truly terrifying weapon of revenge. Rather than extensively describing this world visually, he prefers to cut straight to the heart of things: I’d be hard pressed to draw a picture of a single character or place (with the possible exception of Civitatis Eremia), but I feel I know them very well.

Generally speaking, the cast inhabit various points on the grey spectrum. Everyone comes from a perfectly logical viewpoint, even if that viewpoint sometimes calls for the extermination of an entire distant nation, or the continuation of a not-strictly-innocent correspondence, or the odd bit of necessary torture. This isn’t a nice, cosy, virtuous world. The one who comes closest to being purely good is Miel Ducas, and most of his loyalty, honour and heroism is the result of a really inconvenient sense of duty. It’s hard to be a slacker when you can feel History peering over your shoulder half the time, waiting to note down every error. Nice people, as we see, don’t do awfully well here. But those with ambition, and a keen understanding of human nature, have the potential to remake the entire world. It’s only a matter of finding the right tools…

One note of warning: I really wouldn’t bother with this if you demand nice, wholesome heroes, because that’s not Parker’s business. He does, however, create two fabulously Machiavellian antiheroes, one much more of an antihero than the other, but both sitting happily in the vicinity of sociopathy. I noticed with interest that this perceived lack of a moral compass troubled a lot of people on LibraryThing. Presumably they also thought Gormenghast wasn’t very good because Steerpike was a bit immoral. Personally, I’m all for antiheroes and am a big fan of Machiavelli, so I was happy as a pig in clover.

I found this book in Oxfam the day before I went off to Los Angeles, but didn’t buy the sequel, which was also there – I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d like this, after all. A week later, on my way home from the airport (with suitcase literally in hand), I went back and thanked the stars that the second volume was still on the shelf. I’m just trying to hold off for a little while, so as not to spoil myself with too much of a good thing.

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6 thoughts on “Devices and Desires: K.J. Parker

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    I’m a bit hesitant about Parker’s trilogies – I read his frst one, the Fencer trilogy, and while I enjoyed it overall, it did have a tendency to get lost in all kinds of technical details which, while note uninteresting in themselves, ofen slowed the general pacing down to a crawl. I’ve been focusing on his shorter works (mainly novellas) since, and have come to the conviction that he’s better when he does not have quite as much space to indulge in sprawling infodumps.

    Reading your review, however, I’m wondering whether it may not be time to re-assess that judgment, and after just having finished a series of historical novels gone Fantasy, I imagine it would be a nice complement to read some Fantasy turned historical fiction. 😉 Not sure I’m quite ready for a trilogy yet, but maybe a single-volume novel….

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Well, I guess you could say there’s some info dumping about engineering here, but to me it made sense. The main character is an engineer – it is his be all and end all – and he comes from a society where an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Specifications is vital. Personally I didn’t feel it took away from the story – because all the mechanical imagery helps to understand our protagonist’s way of creating a plan for the future. Maybe the second book will crash into mediocrity though: we’ll find out soon! 😉

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