Devices and Desires by K J Parker
(2006-01-21) Book One of the Engineer Trilogy.
Published January 2006 (UK), by Orbit UK.
One of the latest up-and-coming writers in Fantasy has been KJ Parker. She is the author of The Fencer Trilogy and The Scavenger Trilogy, both of which have been well liked and received on the Forums at SFFWorld.
That may be enough to make some readers rush to the stores for this latest work now.
For me, the book got my attention from the first page. The first line is a wonderful hook. The book starts:
‘ "The quickest way to a man’s heart,’ said the instructor, ’is proverbially through his stomach. But if you want to get into his brain, I recommend the eye socket.’
And so I was off. The book is a large one and yes, the first part of a trilogy. But don’t let that put you off. I’m pleased to type that the 706 pages I then read through were well worth sticking with.
The main story is this: Ziani Vaatzes is a high ranking member of the Foundrymen’s and Machinist’s Guild of the Perpetual Republic of Mezentia, whose modifications to a Mezentine automaton are in direct opposition to the precise requirements of Guild law. For this, Ziani is sentenced to death as an Abominator. However, he escapes the death sentence proclaimed him and is forced into exile to Eremea, leaving his beloved city, republic and Guild, his wife Ariessa and his daughter Moritsa behind. He does however promise his retribution on all those who have led to his demise.
Further in the counterplot, Valens Valentinianus is a Duke’s son, one of the Valdani, trained for succession to the Duke of Eremea, who has fallen in love with Veatriz Sirupati, but Veatriz is betrothed to another: Duke Orsea, the monarch ruler of the mountain dwelling Eremia Montis.
Duke Orsea is first met as the leader of the defeated Eremeans in a massacre by Mezentine machines - scorpions, that rapidly fire hundreds of metal poles into the air in battle to lethal effect. We are also introduced here to Miel Ducas, his faithful right-hand man and coincidentally boyhood sweetheart of Veatriz, who is torn between his friendship and duty to Orsea and his secret love for Veatriz.
It is to them that Ziani arrives, apparently offering his services in order to exact his revenge on Mezentia.
So then we begin a book of power struggles, manners and intrigue. It is a complex mix of memorable characters and places, of political and historical events in a well-realised world. Though the model is perhaps Renaissance Europe, the Fantasy version here given by KJP is very satisfying.
As you might therefore expect, there are a wealth of characters with complex motives, and political industrial and social machinations a-plenty. The book is full of dichotomic resonances – order versus change, rationality versus passion, love versus hate (or at least revenge), old versus new, industrial change versus historical tradition. It is a book about institution and conventions, and the breaking of them; of customs and order being subverted, of protocol and diplomacy, of the old ideas being replaced by the new.
Most importantly though, and as the title of the book so clearly points out, it is a book about the importance of engineers and the things they make; it is a story of machines – the killing scorpions designed by the Mezentines (yet adapted by Ziani), killing thousands – and yet in the end it is also (and possibly more importantly) murder, love and revenge – the desires of the book’s title.
Interestingly, Parker points out that for all of the sophisticated machines, the clever social skills, the political machinations, it is love that is the fundamental: it is love which ultimately is the force for change, that causes events in the book, makes people do what they do, risk all and not complain.
As the book developed, I found myself drawn in more and more. It is a leisurely book yet skilfully written. The story enfolds slowly, yet cleverly. The world building is magnificent. The huge variety of places and names gave the place a real sense of history though you may find yourself hard pressed to keep up with some of the place-names and be unable to pronounce quickly some of the names. I particularly liked the complex and varied organisation of the Guilds of Mezentia, which were balanced by the equally complex court requirements of the Eremeans.
As for the characters, it is here that Parker has clearly surpassed herself. Again, as expected, there are a large variety of characters, often with unpronounceable names, yet the main protagonists are well realised. Ziani is perhaps the most interesting character – a Machiavellian puppet-master, an obsessive maverick genius, whose complex machinations are both dazzling and yet at times astoundingly ruthless.
With such a leading character, in the hands of a weaker writer the other characters could become less important. It is to Parker’s credit that the other characters remain multifaceted and are also strongly developed. Miel is the man bound by duty, who remains devoted to his friend against all opposition. Orsea is a leader with low self-esteem, who is placed into a position of power for which he feels unsuited, yet at times is astonishingly prescient of events. Valens is a brooding romantic anti-hero, torn by unrequited love and clearly underestimated by his enemies. Veatriz is the romantic innocent, at times showing deep understanding whilst at others being quaintly naïve.
In addition to this, the use of language is wonderful. Some of the descriptions of armour and engineering were so complex that I was reminded of some of Mary Gentle’s writing. The vocabulary is wonderfully varied, yet not deliberately obtuse, although finding words like ‘bum’ and ‘F**k’ intermixed with words like ‘expediency’ and ‘mutilated’ was a little disconcerting, and perhaps a little too contrived.
On a more positive note, and as you might expect in such a book, the plot twists and turns (both expected and unexpected) are complex and engaging; with a nice twist at the end, twenty-four chapters later I surfaced.
It is clear that it may not be a book for everyone; some of the events seem a little too obscure and rambling at first, perhaps even a little too complex, though in the end most makes sense. Some details are given in far too much detail, though the reason for such listings is clear: the obsessive nature of the engineer knows no boundaries.
However, because of this, some will find parts of the book too slow-paced, and perhaps a little dry.
I must say that there were times when I got a little frustrated with the book. There were chapters that were dazzlingly written and executed - the battle scenes towards the end of the book, the hunting of boar (which seems to have little to do with the story until later in the book), the images of court life – where the writing is so good that the images became very clear in my reader’s mind.
There are then chapters where there is what I can only see as information dumping. Chapter Four, about a hundred pages in, is where Ziani and Miel try to find areas of common communication between them. It is well written, but in the space of a few pages history, geography and culture are all covered with such a contrasting speed to the majority of the book that it jarred with me as I read it. I felt it was a clumsy way of bringing the reader up to date.
In the same way, the last part of Chapter Twenty-Three, about forty pages from the end, is where Ziani appears to apologise to Miel for major plot events that he has instigated. Whilst it was enlightening and an interesting counterpoint to the earlier chapter, it so conveniently brought the reader up to date with various plotlines that it read a little like the author was writing a whodunit, where the reader is shown the answers to the mystery in a few pages.
Overall though, this was a pleasingly challenging read. What is most apparent to me is that by reading this book, I realised that KJ is an author who is not prepared to stagnate. Though there are elements of the book that readers of her earlier work will recognise – an interest in the rituals of fencing, an obsession with designing and constructing efficient machinery - I thought that this book pushes the boundaries of her writing, and one that I found stylistically and conceptually more ambitious than her previous work I have read. It is an often over-crowded area of the genre where this book resides. However, I was pleased to find that, in the end, I think it is one of its more worthy members.
At one point Ziani, when pondering his imminent death, muses over his gravestone having the epitaph: SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME. On picking the book up, I couldn’t agree more. Complex, literate, leisurely yet engrossing, if your tastes run to intricate political Fantasy, this is not a bad one to try. I look forward to the next book in the series.
Hobbit, January 2006
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