Devices and Desires by K. J. Parker

January 18, 2008 at 3:42 pm (K. J. Parker, Reviews)

K. J. Parker - Devices and DesiresAs a reader, I sometimes like to show off. To show off that I read, as well as, occasionally, what I read. It’s completely shallow to want to show off a book, and I have shallow criteria for deciding which I want to show off. I don’t do anything so obnoxious as announcing it to everyone I meet, but more subtle things like leaving it in a prominent position on my desk so that, as people walk by, they might be able to catch a glimpse in passing.

What books deserve to be flaunted? It comes down to a number of factors: cover art, book title, the quality of the prose, even the authors name plays into it. But when reading Fantasy, there are few books that I want to actively display. It is, in fact, a very rare thing. Not that I’m embarrassed, but most titles tend to get turned over when I set them down. The last Fantasy book that I felt the need to advertise was Bakker’s Prince of Nothing (which I read almost a year ago). But now I’m doing it again with K. J. Parker’s Engineer Trilogy.

I’m not trying to say that Parker is a that great of an author (and I’m not saying that she isn’t), just that her books are aesthetically pleasing. On a purely superficial and self-serving level. Am I really impressing anybody? Probably not. It just one of my quirks.

Devices and Desires is the first book in K. J. Parker’s Engineer Trilogy (the other two are titled Evil for Evil and The Escapement). First off, I’d like to give credit to Orbit for the fantastic covers (they do that a lot), and for releasing all three volumes with only a month’s wait between them.

As the story goes, Ziani Vaatzes, a foreman and engineer in the Eternal Republic (whose people are referred to as Mezentines), is convicted of abomination, a crime of innovation, and sentenced to execution. Naturally, he escapes and flees the city, with no clear inclination of where to go, or what to do, and only the desire to someday be reunited with his family to spur him on. By chance, he comes upon the retreating army of Eremia, staggering their way home after a spectacular defeat at the hands of the Republic. Ziani quickly devises a plan to use his knowledge of the war machines that defeated them to entice the Eremian’s to shelter him and to serve as the instrument of his revenge.

In the background is Duke Valens of the Vadani, chasing after his lost love, Veatriz, who is now married to the Eremian Duke, Orsea. And in the Eternal Republic, there is the political maneuverings, as they prepare for war with Eremia, in and effort to recover the deserter, Ziani Vaatzes.

It’s an compelling story with many interesting plot twists along the way. But it’s also a difficult book to read. The prose is somewhat mechanical. While it does serve the tone of the story, I have to wonder if it was deliberate, or if Parker is, in general, just a long-winded author. Her main focus is on world-building. Whether it’s the scenery, political structures, mechanical processes, fencing maneuvers or hunting theory, the world is meticulously detailed (an impressive display of knowledge). So much so that the story often suffers for it. I had to dig through a lot of nonsense, things that I don’t particularly care to know about, in order to find the story underneath.

In example:

     “The Ducas rides to the hunt on a white palfrey. He wears a quilted pourpoint of white or gray silk over a white linen shirt, cord breeches and arming boots with points for his sabatons; the only weapon he carries is a slightly curved, single-edged hanger as long as his arm from shoulder to fingertips. He may wear a hat if rain is actually falling. He is followed by four huntsmen on barbs or jennets, who carry his armor, his great spear, his light spears, his bow and his close sword, which can be either a falchion or a tuck depending on the likely quarry. A page on an ambler or a mule follows with the wet-weather gear – a hooded mantle, a surcoat, chaps and spats – and the horn.
     On arriving at the meet, the Ducas dismounts, and is accomplished for the hunt in the following order, which differs slightly from the proper order for war: first the sabatons, laced tightly at the toes and under the instep; next the greaves, followed by the leg-harness of demi-greaves, poleyns and cuisses (gamboised cuisses are considered excessive except where the quarry is exclusively bear of wolf) – these are secured by points to the hem of the pourpoint, and the usual straps and buckles around the thigh, the calf and the inside knee. Since the cuirass and placket are not worn for the hunt, the upper points are secured to the kidney-belt, after which the faulds are added to protect the buttocks, thighs and groin. The arm-harness is fitted next; in the hunting harness, the vambraces close on the outside of the forearm with buckles, and the half-rerebrace is worn, secured at the shoulder with a single point. Spaulders are preferred to pauldrons fort he protection of the shoulder, and a simple one-lame gorget suffices for the neck. Finally, the Ducas puts on his gauntlets (the finger type is preferred to the clamshell or mitten varieties) and his baldric, from which hang his close sword and his horn. He carries his great spear in his right hand. The four huntsmen carry the rest of the gear between them; the page stays behind at the meet to hold the horses.
” – page 375-376

I don’t mean to present this as a bad book, but one should be aware of what they are getting in to. It takes considerable effort to get through, but there were many shining moments to make up for the sections that dragged. But, regretfully, I don’t have any examples of them to display. I must blame my own poor foresight; I didn’t think to note the pages of her greater moments when I came upon them. It’ll be too much to go digging for them now. But I must offer something:

     “’Hello,’ Miel said, squeezing out a little more affability from somewhere. ‘I’d forgotten, Jarnac mentioned you were coming along today.’
     Ziani Vaatzes turned his head and looked at him for a heartbeat before answering. ‘I’m afraid I sort of bullied him into inviting me,’ he said. ‘Only, I’ve never seen anything like this before.’
     Miel smiled. ‘Anybody who can bully Jarnac has my sincere admiration.’ He said. ‘I’d have thought it couldn’t be done. So, what do you make of it all?’
     ‘Impressive,’ Vaatzes replied; not that it mattered, since Miel wasn’t particularly interested in the truth. ‘I had no idea it’d be so formal. I expect I look ridiculous.’
     ‘Not at all,’ Miel said (it wasn’t a good day for truth generally). ‘What’ve you got there, in the bag?’
     Vaatzes looked sheepish. ‘I didn’t know what to bring, so I fetched along my bow. I hope that’s all right.’
     ‘Very good,’ Miel said. ‘Is it one you made yourself?’ he added, as a way of filling the silence.
     Vaatzes nodded, loosed the knot and pulled something out of the bag. It would have looked quite like a bow if it hadn’t been made of metal. He was holding it out fro Miel to examine, like a cat that insists on bringing small dead birds into the house.
” –page 377

Though not one of Parker’s finest moments, between the two excerpts, I think that it gives a fair summation of her writing style, and the interplay between massive infodumping and dialogue. Much of the book follows a similar structure. While I hate to say it, you could probably skim half of it without missing anything.

The one place where Devices and Desires didn’t get bogged down in details, was in battle sequences. In those scenes, Parker takes a narrow view of the field, without attention the greater flow of the fight. For that, I thought that the battles were the best part of the book. I found them to be suitably confused.

The environment is described down to the placement of every nail, but the characters are, as far as appearance is concerned, mostly left to the reader’s imagination. She does, however, detail every facet of their personalities in the same manner that she does the world.

The characters are set up to extreme opposites, giving them something of a yin and yang effect (which I like to think was deliberate). Valens is a strong, confident, charismatic leader, while Orsea is weak and indecisive, leaving most decisions to others. Naturally the nations that they lead – Valens’ Vadani and Orsea’s Eremia – are old enemies. Then there’s the calculating and methodical Ziani, who’s main opposition, Miel, acts more on intuition and a sense of duty.

The same structure is applied to the nations themselves. The Vadani and Eremians take their cues from the Dukes. The Eternal Republic is excessively organized, while their greatest enemy, the Cure Hardy, are chiefly dispersive and nomadic. Accordingly, the strong and structured nations, the Vadani and Mezentine’s, are rich, while their opposites are very poor.

The only flaw in her characterization (that bothered me anyway) was that her everybody was almost emotionless. When this was first pointed out to me, I wrote it off as: “well, nothing that bad has happened yet, but when _____ happens…” Only, when those things did happen, the characters all shrank down into contemplation rather than displaying any emotional reaction. Even at the beginning of the novel, when Ziani is fleeing his execution, it’s more of a rational process than it is a desperation to not be killed.

Devices and Desires has it’s strengths, certainly, but it’s the things that went wrong that I always seem to dwell on the most. Besides the weaknesses of the characterization and the over-descriptiveness, there were a few points that struck me as especially jarring. First was the fact that the Republic is a highly industrialized society, while the rest of the world seems to be dwelling in the middle-ages. I can understand the Mezentines being secretive with their technologies, but it only stands to reason that someone else would be able to figure out how to make a few innovations themselves. Extra attention is given to innocuous events that will come into effect later in the story, making the foreshadowing feel artificial. I thought there was an over-reliance to the scorpion, and would have liked to see some other war engines get a little more spotlight. And the other major point was a “bad guy explains the plot” scene at the end. I had puzzled out a good deal of what happened on my own, so half of the explanation was redundant. The other half I liked better thinking of it as coincidental.

I can’t help but to bring this all back to comparisons to R. Scott Bakker. I could easily draw parallels between the characters in both series – Ziani to Khellus, Miel to Achamien (no, Devices and Desires has no magic, I’m talking about personality), Valens to Conphas, etc. Not to accuse Parker of borrowing ideas; I think it’s more of a “great minds think alike” proposition. The characters really are quite different, overall, but they share some fundamental similarities. The story’s are nothing alike. But they both try to present higher concepts than might not be readily comprehensible to the average reader. Well, they were a little beyond my understanding at least. And they’re both a bit of a chore to read.

Overall Impression: Good.

Final Thoughts: Devices and Desires is a difficult book.  It took a lot of effort to get through it, but it was, in the end, satisfying.

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