Friday, 2 September 2005

Devices and Desires

K.J. Parker
ISBN: 1-84149-275-2

Ziani Vaatzes is an engineer, a maker of devices for the great Republic of Mezentia. When he builds a clockwork toy for his daughter, he creates something that exceeds the sacred specifications of Mezentine engineering and for that is sentenced to death. In escaping his fate, Vaatzes begins the construction of a mechanism that will lead to the death of thousands and destruction on a scale never before seen. Those around him are but parts of the machine, and it will be oiled with their blood before he is done.

Those familiar with Parker’s earlier work will know what to expect of ‘Devices and Desires’, but a newcomer to his writing will find this novel an off-beat, intricate slice of perfection. The characters are astounding; elegantly sculpted and wonderfully human, they are as flawed and limited as any being inside or out of fiction. Their strengths and weaknesses drive the narrative, granting the world they inhabit and the tale of their lives great authenticity. For once we have a fantasy novel where the characters exist for their own sake, rather than to further the plot. All of the set pieces, from battles to exquisite boar-hunts, exist to allow the reader better understanding of characters who aren’t simply reacting to the author’s well-crafted narrative - they are creating it themselves.

Whereas Parker’s earlier books have suffered on occasion from stretches where nothing seems to happen, in ‘Devices and Desires’ he has got the balance of action and characterisation just right. Yet to separate the two is misleading, because every scene somehow manages to become both exciting and insightful. Even the quietest, most introspective moment bears enough tension to keep from becoming dull.

While the novel is never less than absorbing, the strength of its characterisation also creates its only weakness. It seems even the most minor of players must be explained, fleshed out and made sympathetic to the reader, which means the focus is taken off the central characters for a handful of pages and these detours, entertaining and perceptive though they are, can seem like an indulgence.

A second side effect of such intensive characterisation is to strip ‘Devices and Desires’ of anything even remotely resembling a villain. While at first it seems as though the Mezentine Republic might be set to play that role, through shifting perspective to see the world through their eyes Parker gives them, too, the reader’s sympathy. It is a clever trick, refusing to provide a target deserving of destruction, and it makes the inevitable chaos and death all the more tragic. If only it could have been avoided, then all of these people (none of whom are paragons, but neither are they entirely to blame) could have continued in their selfish little lives.

It is that feeling of inevitability that lies at the heart of ‘Devices and Desires.’ It is a theme that can be found throughout, from Vaatzes’ insistence that his mechanism is out of his hands to a Mezentine official’s musings on cause and effect. Nobody, it seems, is truly free to make their own choices. Led by the environment and their own natures they battle for control of themselves and the world around them but even Vaatzes, so adept at making tools of those around him, sometimes seems little more than a helpless puppet.

Through his characters Parker expertly dissects the concept of free will, creating as he does a superb work of fiction that any reader can enjoy. To get the best from ‘Devices and Desires’ will require many readings, and I can only hope that the rest of the ‘Engineer’ trilogy can reach the same high standard. In the meantime this novel sits on the shelf marked ‘work of art’, its place well deserved.

This review was originally written for


Terry Brooks
Del Rey
ISBN: 0-7432-5946-7

Grianne Ohmsford, head of the Druid order, still languishes in the dark and demonic world of the Forbidding, but things could be worse. thanks to the strange creature called Weka Dart she is free of the Straken Lord’s dungeons and although she doesn’t know it, her family’s rescue attempt is coming along nicely. Pen Ohmsford has retrieved the talisman he needs to free her, though it has cost him dearly. Now all he must do is return to the Druid keep, where all their enemies lurk, and enter the Forbidding to reclaim her.

Demons and Druids stand in the way of the touching family reunion but really, what could be simpler? If that sounds rather casual, it is because the Ohmsfords have been saving the world for so long now that they barely have to put any effort into it. The first two Shannara series’ were truly epic, rich in character and wonder. By comparison 'Straken' has all the depth of a child’s paddling pool, its characters pale shadows and the tale they inhabit a lifeless corpse. It feels tired, as though the author’s love for his creation has faded to nothing and he now churns out these stories on automatic. The spark of imagination, that special something which made Shannara so popular, has gone out.

Nothing makes that clearer than the repetition that can be found in 'Straken', prison breaks and airship battles used, given a fresh coat of paint, and used again. In contrast the Four Lands, Brooks’ distinctive setting, is barely touched upon. A once marvellous place, in Straken it is cruelly under-represented. What replaces it is wholly mundane, lacking the majesty it once possessed. The demon-world inside the Forbidding, a new location unexplored in previous novels, is similarly wasted. An opportunity to create a place of despair and unforgiving savagery is squandered, the land inside the Forbidding appearing no darker or more dangerous than a stroll in the park. This is a place to which creatures of dark magic and evil intent were banished, yet in Brooks’ hands it seems dull and unthreatening.

Straken is not a bad novel - it is simply bland and uninspiring. The fantasy genre is saturated with poor imitations of Brooks’ work, and this book somehow feels like one of them. There is nothing that stands out, either for damnation or praise, yet the author’s reputation ensures it will sell. A shame, when so many fresh and original works will be overlooked. Brooks has shown he is a writer of talent and imagination, yet both seem to have deserted him here. The reader turns the last page with ambivalence, caring little for shallow characters and the limited growth granted them by an unadventurous narrative. Perhaps it is time Shannara was allowed to rest?

Whether it will or not is another question. The end of the novel feels rushed, incomplete, and several plot threads are left frustratingly untied. Perhaps Brooks is planning to make ‘High Druid of Shannara’ a four book series? If not, certain subplots within ‘Straken’ are rendered mysteriously pointless. A shame, because their intricacies were more engaging than the main story itself, little gems amid the dross. A dragon; the fate of Weka Dart; even the Straken Lord himself, built up in the preceding novel and unforgivably sidelined here. All saved for another time? I hope so, just as I hope to see Brooks regain his old form. It wouldn’t do for another book to join ‘Straken’ on my ‘Big disappointment’ shelf, would it?

This review was originally written for