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Devices and Desires: The Engineer Trilogy Book One

by KJ Parker

(Orbit, £12.99, 548 pages, trade paperback, published 28 April 2005. Orbit, 7.99, 706 pages, paperback, January 2006)

Review by Simeon Shoul

cover scanSophisticated, subtle, and ruthless, the Perpetual Republic of Mezentia is a near-perfect industrial realm, in near-perfect control of much of the world. From the workshops and factories of their Guildsmen stream goods in infinite variety; stamped and chiselled, hammered, forged, woven and carved. Their river is domesticated to power a thousand intricately interacting water-wheels and the nations all around are just as intricately bound into a net of commercial subservience. They exist, so far as the Mezentians are concerned, to buy what they have to sell.

From Mezentia, fleeing execution for an infraction of Guild rules, comes Ziani Vaatzes, a Guild foreman, and Engineer of perverse genius. It isn't that Ziani wants revenge. What he wants is to see his wife and daughter (necessarily abandoned in Mezentia) again. But to do that he'll have to take many difficult and dangerous steps, and cause a very large amount of pain, fear, and death, because the Guilds not only want to kill him for the rule he broke, they also want to kill him because of the knowledge he carries in his head of Mezentia's technologies, which cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of the neighbouring Barbarian Kingdoms.

This story has the structure of a particularly intricate set of falling dominos. To get what he wants Ziani has to knock over servants into merchants, who then knock over lords into Duchesses, into Dukes, into Generals, into armies, which succeed, or fail, or flounder about in a welter of blood and ignorance out of which (he hopes) Ziani will pop, just one short step closer to where he wants to be (back in Mezentia with his family).

So he lies, and schemes, manipulates and deceives, building up people, and machines, only to cut them ruthlessly down when they have served his purpose. On the sidelines, of course, a dozen other characters, countries, political factions, interests and intriguers are also pursuing their goals, yet seemingly mere puppets on a string (within the limits of acceptable engineering tolerances, of course) to Ziani's needs.

There is also, of course, the usual element of satire that graces Parker's work. This time it seems that Corporatism is up for the chop. Perhaps one could even say that Globalisation, the voracious, soulless demands of the modern making/marketing/selling/profiting machine we live in, is under attack (and not before time!).

But does it make a good book? Well, this story is not up to the exceptionally high mark that Parker set in his last work, the excellent and appalling Scavenger Trilogy. There is painstaking detail, but there is not much fresh invention. There is intrigue and betrayal, but this is nothing new. It lacks, definitely, the air of sinister mystery that made the Scavenger books so compelling.

Above all there is a troublesome problem of credibility. Ziani is brilliant, but he is also lucky, perhaps too lucky. He has so many balls to juggle, so many dupes to trick into jumping through so many hoops, and some of them are so very far outside his active control, that it becomes very hard to credit (even with lengthy explanations) just how he is achieving his ends.

In all a slightly strange read. In places witty, in places elegant, in places clever; briskly satirical, dark, and tinged with obsession near to madness in the person of its principal character, it remains a touch unconvincing and occasionally laboured. Good, but not great.

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