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

Tell me if I missed yours!

K. J. Parker, enigmatic military fantasist

Memory read Purple and Black a while ago, and because I am shallow, I added it to my list on the strength of the…um…the fact that it’s printed in two different colors. Don’t judge me! Part of the book IS IN PURPLE. Moreover, it’s an epistolary novel, a correspondence between the emperor of a Rome-type empire and an old school friend of his, who’s been put in charge of sorting out a rebellion force. There is a fair amount of griping back and forth, and reminiscing about the far more fun they and their friends had when they were in school.

Purple and Black is a wee little novella, not a proper full-length book, but it says a lot over its few pages. The emperor, Nico, acceded unwillingly to a troubled throne and is trying to find a way to avert another round of civil wars like the ones that have racked the empire throughout its history. But he has never wanted to be a ruler, any more than Name wanted to be a general, and they are both struggling to effect positive change while maneuvering within the clumsy apparatus of government and tradition. It’s a book about power and the institutions that allow it to operate.

This book sneaks up on you, man. You start out, everyone’s friends, they’re so light-hearted with each other, old school friends, and even when they’re going through bad stuff, really bad stuff, it still feels like a pretty cheerful sort of book. Then suddenly CRASH, things are not what you thought they were. So okay, that’s the new situation, things are slightly grimmer than before, but still going along, until CRASH, the situation is still not what you thought it was. And on like this to the end of the story, which was, to say the least, not what I expected.

Other reviews:

Stella Matutina
Fantasy Book Critic
Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist
Reading the Leaves
Dark Wolf’s Fantasy Reviews

Did I miss yours? Read this straightaway and come talk to me about it!

As it happened, I was passing by the library a few days after reading Purple and Black, so I thought I would just stop in and see what other books by K. J. Parker might be had. Parker has written seven or eight books, including two trilogies, but my library only had one standalone novel, and one that’s the first in a series. I didn’t want to start a series I wouldn’t be able to finish, so I checked out the standalone, The Company. It’s about a group of five men, the survivors of a group of six “linebreakers” in the late war, the legendary A Company, to whom death did not seem to apply. Many years after the end of the war, their leader, Teuche Kunessin, has come up with an idea for the five of them to colonize a small island.

Between them, the men work out the details. They buy a ship and all the supplies they will need to set up a farm colony that will last and grow over the years. They fit themselves out with indentured servants, guns, livestock, building supplies, even wives, and take off for the island of Sphoe. Things do not go exactly according to plan. Though the men are still bound together by their years of service in the war, and are still able to work almost effortlessly as a team when they want to, there are underlying resentments and secrets. And nothing brings out resentments and secrets like being stuck on an island together.

I cannot put my finger on exactly what intrigued me about this book. Parker does very well at making his five characters believably competent and deadly, fascinating in spite of being unlikable. They’re both respected and feared, these men who survived over and over again a job that killed nearly all its practitioners. Even when they’re goofing off a bit among themselves, the reader’s not able to forget that they’re the most effective fighting force of their size in all the land. I dunno. It’s tense. Plus, I read the end (this was in August) so I knew where all this was heading.

Some stuff you might want to be aware of before starting reading K.J. Parker: K. J. Parker only believes in happy endings in the way that K. J. Parker believes in New Guinea. It exists but has no impact on K. J. Parker. Which, actually, is kind of the way the characters of The Company feel about women. The women are peripheral. This isn’t necessarily indicative of any bad attitudes on the part of K. J. Parker: the wives in The Company are not paid much notice by the five men, but then, the five men do not pay much attention to anyone outside of themselves. That’s sort of the point. You don’t get the impression that the women have no lives of their own, but because the men aren’t paying attention, the reader doesn’t get to see them much. I’ll be interested to see how Parker handles women in the other books I have yet to read but can hopefully get on PaperbackSwap.

Other reviews:

Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review
Genre Reader
Dark Wolf’s Fantasy
Reading the Leaves
Grasping for the Wind

Again, I will add a link if I missed yours. Promise.