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Review: Devices and Desires by K.J. Parker (Engineer Trilogy #1)

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All in all, it’s a book that focuses on its themes and prose so much that it loses focus of almost anything else. Perhaps it comes from his background in short stories (I am very familiar with them, but I never read anything he wrote as Holt, so I can’t say exactly),

Conceptually and stylistically, it’s easily one of the best fantasy books I have ever read, but it’s not without some serious flaws. While I enjoyed it very much, this makes it very hard to rate and recommend.

He had to have it; and if it meant the end of the world, that wasn’t his problem.

An engineer, about to be executed for daring to be creative and not adhering to the Specification in a personal project, flees from his city to a neighbouring country who have just lost a battle with his city, and sets out for revenge. That would be a basic summary of the plot, and “a slow, political fantasy set in a secondary world without magic” a basic description, but there’s much more to it than that. The main point of the book is an examination of evil; what would drive someone to do a thing that they know would result in thousands of deaths, and the justifications such people would make to themselves. It’s a bit like Malazan in that, but almost reverse in conclusions – part of the answer, oddly enough, seems to be love – presented not as the ultimate good, but instead a force capable of destroying nations.

I liked that all of it reads much more as an exploration of an idea (“What if love was not a good thing?” or “What would drive an ordinary man to do this?”) and allowing you to form your own opinion of whether is it true or not, than an author presenting his viewpoint and forcing it upon the reader. The writing style is also fantastic – third person with a very dry, cynical, almost satirical undertone, and really quotable. I’m not usually someone who notices prose, but here it was a delight to read, and mostly what kept me going.

And in places, I needed quite a lot to keep me going. The characters are this book’s main weakness. Each one has a theme and a role, the amoral engineer, the small-minded politician, the tradition-obsessed nobleman, the indecisive king, and so on; they have their motivations and things that bind them, but there is still something fundamental missing that makes them less than beliveable. There’s a sense of certain detachment, mechanicalness, lack of passion – you know Vaatzes is motivated by the love for his wife, but you don’t feel that as you read it. The telling and the showing, and the difference comes up short. Another odd thing is that there seem to be no prominent female characters. Sure there are Ariessa and Veatriz, but they barely play more than a background role.

The worldbuilding is also not quite up to standards. There are a few little touches I rarely see included, like references to various in-world art styles and literature, but overall most of the various cultures and nations feel barely sketched out, lacking in atmosphere and texture. It didn’t fully convince me.

Enjoyment: 4/5
Execution: 2.5/5

Recommended to: anyone who finds the concept interesting and is up to a slow, heavy read
Not recommended to: people who require action in their books

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