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Book Review: Devices and Desires by K. J. Parker

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It begins with an engineer. He thinks like a machine and sees the mechanisms in everything. He lives in a manufacturing kingdom called Mezentia and works at an ordnance factory designing all manner of products, but mostly machines of war. He decides one day to make a gift for his daughter. But he goes beyond the binding specifications of his trade and ends up on trial. He is condemned to death. When this engineer finds out that his family will not receive any monetary assistance because of the charges against him, he decides to escape and re-shape the world.

In Devices and Desires, author K. J. Parker outlines in believable detail the workings of Mezentia, this land of engineering. Specifications, measurements, processes and techniques are all laid out quite specifically. This system did its work on the book’s main character, Ziani Vaatzes. He thinks of everything as a big machine. When he leaves his country, he no longer has the metal and tools to work with that he’s used to so he creates the machine of war using the flesh and blood around him. He quickly divines the desires of the nobles in the country to which he defected and puts his devices into action. He has a single purpose in mind, to get his family back, and he has no time for compassion along the way. He struggles with that; at times, his humanity nearly threatens to derail his machination. That struggle makes for good drama.

The politics of the various kingdoms in Parker’s world are explained well. Mezentia politics is like the workings of corporate management. It is eerily reminiscent of work. If this work is a statement against the soulless machinations of the world’s corporations, it makes a strong case. The only motivation behind the politics of Mezentia is profit or prestige. The other kingdoms are ruled by dukes and other nobles.

These other characters — the dukes and the noblemen and the servants — are well written, too. They are not altruistic kings or virtuous heroes, the typical fantasy fare. They are people in difficult circumstances, some times of their own making. Parker effectively conveys their thoughts, shows their ambivalence and their doubts. Those feelings are contrasted with actions and we quickly identify with these people. They feel inadequate to deal with a situation yet they must.

Dialogue is realistic. My favorite conversations were those between Miel Ducas and his best friend, Orsea. There was a casual insight conveyed by their words, a believable affinity between two longtime friends. You begin to care about all these people, meaning Parker is a successful storyteller.

There is a thread of sarcasm running through the tapestry of the text which makes it refreshing to read. It is a long book and at times reading about the specifications, the measurements and such for the engineering work gets tedious; some of the characters' mental asides are boring and seemingly spurious. But the overall story makes it worth reading through these sections.

I appreciated the subdued manner of the entire story. Each person is doing his part, just as should be expected. They are at work, slaves to duty. None are the last king of any kingdom, nor the chosen tool to restore balance to anything. There is a considerable lack of melodrama. Even setting into motion a war that will allegedly realign the entire world is treated as just another day at the office.

It’s a splendid story, full of turmoil and conspiracy. And it’s only the first book of a trilogy. Devices and Desires will be found on bookshelves beginning October 1. Be sure to check it out.

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