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Devices And Desires
K.J. Parker
Orbit hardcover £12.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Devices And Desires is brought to us by the pseudonymous writer of the Scavenger and Fencer trilogies and marks the beginning of the Engineer trilogy (or Devices And Desires series as it's referred to by Amazon US). While at first glance this 500-page novel looks like a bog standard fantasy novel, what makes it worth reading are the two important differences that make K.J. Parker's voice almost unique in the field. Firstly, Parker is an expert on medieval weapon making and secondly, there are no fantastical elements at all in this fictional medieval world.

The story takes place as three city-states stand on the cusp of war with each other. The Mezentine Republic has advanced industrial capabilities but is culturally stagnant. Despite this stagnancy, they are also rich as a result of trading with the technologically backward mountain top nations. The Vadani are lead by a Macchiavellian young Duke while the Eremians are lead by a man ill suited to running anything without the help of his best friend. A disastrous attempt by the Eremians to invade the Republic results in their army being slaughtered by mechanised spear-throwing devices called Scorpions but also in their discovery of a Mezentine engineer fleeing persecution. This engineer offers to share Mezentine military secrets with the Eremians, which prompts the Mezentines into a pre-emptive invasion in order to preserve the balance of power. Meanwhile, behind the hard politics there are real people with real relationships such as the Duke of the Vadani and the Duchess of Eremia who exchange secret love letters and the Eremian whose motivations for arming the Eremians are mysteriously unclear.

There are two obvious ways to read this novel, as a political thriller and as an investigation into medieval science and technology. The problem is that Parker systematically refuses to engage with the mindsets or beliefs of his characters and how they relate to the societies they live in. Characters talk and think like modern people, frequently seeming to pay only lip service to the norms and fashions that differentiate our world from theirs. The result is that the plot seems driven by bloodless bureaucracy and witless whim rather than politics and characters' actions are occasionally completely incomprehensible. The most obvious example of this is the engineer whose motivations in the second half of the book are entirely opaque but extend to the very basis for why people actually go to war in the first place. So we're left with a political thriller without politics and an examination of primitive science that replaces discussions of beliefs and theories (as in Charles Stross' excellent Merchant Princes series) with page after page of discussion of how to cut perfect circles out of steel plate and which types of animal make the most valuable trophies (it's deformed ones apparently).

The apolitical nature of this novel and the obsession over the trivial minutiae of medieval technology are stylistically reminiscent of a number of other authors. Parker's lengthy discussions of courtly hunting and crank shafts remind me of the endless sidebars in Stephenson's Baroque cycle and the apolitical depiction of war is a bit like trying to learn about World War II by reading nothing but books about tanks and u-boats. One might therefore be tempted to see this book as an attempt to blend fantasy with the Tom Clancy novel but the book also fails to impress by this yardstick. Parker's joy is not the use of weapons but their construction (he deploys his weapons twice and both of them are largely off-stage) and his politics are not replaced with simplistic issues of morality as with Tom Clancy but rather are conspicuous by their absence.

Devices And Desires while clearly the work of a lucid, witty and erudite writer fails to satisfy as a political thriller, as a slice of militaristic fantasy or as an investigation of medieval science. The amount of detail lavished on Parker's hobby horses result in a novel that feels unevenly paced and bloated because of Parker's failure to place either his world building or his discussions of technology in an appropriate context.
Devices and Desires

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