Review: Devices and Desires, K. J. Parker

Why, why, why would my library purchase one book in a trilogy and not the other ones? Why, library, why? In my library’s defense, it has managed to lose its copy of Devices and Desires too, so unless you were searching on the library catalogue, you’d have no way of knowing the library owns anything but Purple and Black and The Company by K. J. Parker, and you would not therefore be disappointed to be unable to find Devices and Desires on the shelf. Happily for me, a copy showed up on PaperbackSwap at an ideal moment. But that doesn’t solve the problem of my library’s not having the second two books in the series when I really really want to read them.

(If I sound a trifle put out with my library at the moment, it is only because there is a rude librarian who suddenly seems to be there every time I go. She made me stand and watch her check in my books, although I have repeatedly assured her that I trust her to check them in, and then she didn’t give me a receipt when she finished. It really doesn’t make any sense. In the event of an error, I can’t go back to the library and say, Well, I watched the librarian check in my books, because I haven’t got any proof that those books were checked in.)

Devices and Desires is all about an engineer called Ziani Vaatzes, who gets arrested and sentenced to death for trying to improve upon the engineering laws in his country of Mezentia. Using his engineering skills he escapes from Mezentia and happens to be found by the Eremian army, which is fleeing in disarray after a resounding defeat by the Mezentines. He then sets about getting, more or less, revenge, using his engineering skills.

(I just discovered that, by a vicious trick of the universe, the library at the university where I spent my summer had the second two books in this damn trilogy. But not the first. So I couldn’t have read the whole trilogy while I was there, and I can’t read it now that I’m home either. Come on, PaperbackSwap! You have helped me so many times before!)

I’ve said before that I enjoy books that are full of political machinations, and Devices and Desires delivers them in spades. On one side of the world, you have the Mezentines, with their endless euphemistically-named committees and their devotion to precision in everything. On the other side, you have Eremia and the Vadani, two countries that have recently made peace after years of brutal war; you have the leader of Eremia, Orsea, a sweet kind man but an ineffectual ruler; and you have the leader of Vadani, Duke Valens, whose only breathing space between ruthlessly effective ruling decisions is the secret correspondence he carries on with Orsea’s wife Veatriz. And of course, primarily, and the source of all the suspense and fun, there is Vaatzes, pulling strings.

I’m giving this book five stars because that’s how much I enjoyed it. Normally when I have enjoyed a book as much as I enjoyed this one, I want to go out and buy copies of it for everyone I know. In this case, though it grieves me to say it, many of the people I know would hate it and be bored to tears. And it’s very hard to say who would hate it and who would love it, and I really don’t know to whom I can recommend it with a clear conscience, or whether they would listen if I did. If someone had described it to me earlier this year, I’d have said it didn’t sound like my sort of thing at all, military fantasy with an engineer protagonist and lots of long-winded descriptions of the clothes you wear to a boar hunt, the marching patterns of various armies, the different bits that go into engineering a Mezentine murder machine.

Except, except, except I loved this book. It has one of those lovely, carefully constructed plots that sets up its major points well in advance of when they will be needed, so that by the time they come back around you have half-forgotten them. One might argue that the ending of this book is too neat, but I loved it: all the little cogs, which I had watched Parker put in place over the course of this quite long novel, suddenly proved to be a complete machine, the output of which was, dismayingly, inevitable. Plus, there was all manner of irony. Irony! Beautiful, Greek-tragedy-like irony. I am mad for it.

Another complaint I have seen is that the characters are not well-developed. As with the long descriptions thing, I can see how a reader would get this impression, but I didn’t at all. The main characters are people for whom keeping secrets and maintaining facades is a necessity, and so they do it. We also see what they are thinking and why they are acting that way, and (I love this) we see nearly all of them from several different points of view. Orsea appears this way inside his head, and that way from the perspective of his wife, and another way from the perspective of the foreigner Vaatzes. Plus, apart from poor Orsea, the main point-of-view characters are competent, and that is an exceptionally attractive, if not particularly attractive-sounding, quality.

Soooooo….I don’t know whether you would like this or not. The closest thing I can compare it to, with the reservation that it contains far more stuff about boar-hunting, engineering, and military strategy, would be Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series. It is the same sort of fantasy world, avoiding the dragons-and-wizards elements of high fantasy in favor of the intricacies of international politics, and it’s got similarly tense undercurrents in character interactions, and it’s got puppetmastery characters orchestrating the downfall of nations.

Other reviews, but I wish more people had loved it more unreservedly:

Bookworm Blues
Genre Reader
The OF Blog
Ubiquitous Absence
BookCynic

Tell me if I missed yours!