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