Carving out a niche in the epic fantasy market these days is an ever-challenging task. Some authors producing original ideas and others the most blasé, most have only a moderate degree of success making their creations singular. George R.R. Martin, through strong characters and worldbuilding, has conquered the market, while writers like Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Michael Sullivan, and the creators of Dragonlance continue to churn out easily digesteable material derivative of tradition. Occupying the middle territory are writers like Richard Morgan, Brian Ruckley, R. Scott Bakker, Joe Abercrombie, David Gemmell, etc., etc.; certain facets are unique, but by and large a very familiar sense of epic fantasy imbues their work. K.J. Parker is another such author, and the first in the Engineer trilogy, Devices and Desires (2005), is a representative example why.
Devices and Desires is the story of Ziani Vaatzes. Engineer among the industrially dominant Mezentine, he breaks Guild law (literally by fractions of an inch) and, in the opening pages, is sentenced to death. Making a narrow escape, he soon finds himself a prisoner of neighboring Eremia, a duchy at war with Mezentine. Duke Orsea, leader of Mezentine, grasps Ziani’s potential and puts his knowledge of metalworking, machining, and engineering to use. Ziani more than willing to impart his knowledge, vengeance on Mezentine and seeing his beloved wife and daughter once again cloud every decision he makes. But whether Mezentine is able to reclaim what was lost to them is certainly at odds.
More than a classic tale of revenge, Devices and Desires delves heavily into industrialization, technology, and the economic result. Parker obviously knowledgeable about machining, metalwork, and the implementation of equipment which uses such materials and methods, the details of turning, gauging, and manipulating steel and other metals into useful shapes and contrivances are abound. At times, the most detailed of detailed details occupy the page. The tolerances written into the laws Ziani breaks at the outset of the story, for example, are down to the thousandth of an inch. Some reviewers have complained about this aspect of the novel. Certainly it is at times indulgent, but overall I would argue it gives the narrative part of its character; no other epic fantasy novel utilizes metalwork and machining in such a fashion.
But more often exceeding simple indulgence, the industrial elements serve a secondary purpose: societal commentary, particularly the effect of technology on agrarian communities ruled by monarchies and economics. Parker not driving an agenda for any particular side, the contrasts and evolution of tech are allowed to develop as they will (though plot certainly plays a hand in pushing or expanding certain aspects). Like our real world, war and the human inability to escape its wars (slightly nihilistic, yes) are the result.
But for all the commentary on and implications regarding industrialization, Devices and Desires has trouble manifesting its other facets in compelling fashion. Parker deserves to be recognized for creating so-called gray characters in an epic fantasy story, but the ties connecting the characters, and the manner in which they present their emotions and make decisions is at most times flat, and at others, quite immature. There is a love-story thread weaving its way throughout the novel that, for lack of a better description, is of high school dimension, while Ziani’s ambitions at times border on the illogical psychotic—a dimension contrasted by his logical, engineering ways. Neither hero or anti-hero, Ziani on the surface appears a normal human for his internal balance of good and evil. But when one looks deeper, the motivation behind his decisions is lacking to the point his movement through the story feels more contrived than natural. Again, Parker deserves credit for attempting to produce atypical fantasy characters, but when presented in stilted fashion, their realism takes a hit.
Narrative quality, well, suffice to say Parker eschews typical Medeival-esque prose (read: pseudo-Victorian) for a style unequivocally more contemporary. Top heavy on exposition and internal monologue, pages and pages turn with reflection on the situation amongst the kingdoms and lands, as well as situations the characters find themselves in. Parker not a concise writer, these sections often move with muddled purpose, the reader getting a vague overview rather than able to ride a focused stream of thought. Dialogue perhaps the most contentious point, check the following representative sample.
“Right,” Vaatzes said. “All three of which I know nothing about. Which would you say is easiest?”
“None of them.”
“In that case, falconry or fencing. Horses give me a rash.”
Miel laughed. “Maybe I’ll teach you both,” he said. “But it’ll all depend on what Orsea decides.”
Vaatzes nodded. “You’ve known him for a long time, I think.”
“All my life. We grew up together, twenty or so of us, hanging around the court. Back then, of course, he was just the Orseoli and I was the Ducas, but we always got on well nonetheless – surprising, since my father was right up at the top of the tree and the Orseoli were sort of clinging frantically to the lower branches. But then Orsea married the Countess Sirupati, and she’s got no brothers and her sisters…”
What follows is a strong digression into (info dump) family history—not for purposes of conversation, but simply to inform the reader. And much, much of the dialogue is presented in such fashion.
Conversation in Devices and Desires thus bear a closer resemblance to modern subway conversation than anything resembling interaction between knights, dukes, and nobles. It is, of course up to the individual reader whether this workaday style of dialogue is suitable or not. But of certain concern are the filler phrases, the winks and nods to reader, and the dot by dot padding with tags and throwaway lines. The number of times the reader is semi-directly addressed becomes cumbersome. By contrast, Parker’s later novella A Small Price for Birdsong and Let Maps to Others show much stronger, more focused narrative technique, the digressions and asides minimal.
In the end, Devices and Desires is a novel as two-sided as the formation of its title. Parker implements a number of strong ideas related to industrialization (particularly machining and metalwork), contrasts the setting with an agrarian kingdom, and allows the proceedings to comment with relevancy on humanity. Contrasting these elements is a narrative padded with wandering, digressive exposition and plot threads of juvenile import. The maturity of the social agenda thus fails to fit the manner in which characters are presented and the plot plays out. For this mediocrity, Devices and Desires fits right in with the group of current fantasy writers doing marginally original things with the genre.
(A side note: though Devices and Desires is the first novel in a trilogy, it reads fine as a stand-alone. The major plot-threads are tied off, leaving only larger concerns for the second and third books. It thus serves as a safe entry point into the series; if the reader dislikes what they read, there is no onus to continue reading to find out what happens next.)