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Books: K. J. Parker's Engineer Trilogy - The Elephant Forgets
Books: K. J. Parker's Engineer Trilogy
K. J. Parker, The Engineer Trilogy

I started reading K. J. Parker with the publication of "Amor Vincit Omnia" in Subterranean and in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine a couple of years ago, and I loved the story, reprinting in last year's Best of the Year book. I quickly snapped up the Subterranean Press novellas Blue and Gold (which is magnificent) and Purple and Black (which is merely very good), as well as, last year in Subterranean, the also magnificent "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong", which I again reprinted. Obviously, it was time for me to read some novels, so I bought Parker's best known (seems to me) work, The Engineer Trilogy, and I read it over the past year or so.

The first novel is called Devices and Desires. In it, an engineer working at a factory in the city-state of Mezentia is condemned to death for violation of specification. It seems that Mezentia is the source of all quality machined goods in this area, and they feel that one of their strengths is the reliance on strict specifications for anything they make. Any deviance is criminal. The engineer, Ziani Vaatzes, was caught making a toy for his beloved daughter for which he made an improvement to the established design.

So, Vaatzes escapes, and makes his way to the country of Eremia, which has foolishly got itself embroiled in a war against Mezentia. Vaatzes offers his help -- he can design defensive equipment for them which will make it difficult for Mezentia's mercenary force to take the Eremian capitol city. It turns out that Eremia's ruler, Duke Orsea, is a pleasant and honorable but irredeemably stupid man. He takes on Vaatzes. This, it is made clear, is the first cog in Vaatzes' ultimate engineering design -- a "machine" to allow him to return to his wife and daughter. The rest of this book is the story of the siege of Eremia. The key character in it, besides Vaatzes, is Duke Valens of the neighboring country of the Vadani. The Duke is, apparently, an outstanding ruler, as well as brilliant at whatever else he does -- hunting, war, and writing letters to Veatriz, Duke Orsea's wife, whom he loves but cannot, of course, have. Though their relationship is in essence innocent -- and Veatriz appears to sincerely love Orsea -- it proves not surprisingly to be another fulcrum in what becomes a tragedy. And this relationship becomes another element, another cog, in Vaatzes' machine.

I won't say too much more about the plots of the books, because saying much about book 2 would spoil book 1, to an extent. (Not that important an extent, in my opinion, but then I realize I'm much less sensitive to spoilers than many readers.) The second book is called Evil for Evil, the third The Escapement. The books are somewhat symmetrically structured, each opening with the same sentence, applied in each case to a different character; each involving a siege or attack on a different city. The ultimate theme on the surface is, perhaps, people as machines -- the way people can be manipulated in the service of a larger plan. Look one level beyond that, though, and almost all the terrible things that happen can be laid at the door of love -- Vaatze's love for his wife, Valens' love for Veatriz ... and a couple other examples that it would be a spoiler to discuss.

There is a plethora of major characters, almost all quite interesting. Miel Ducas, for example, is the scion of one of Eremia's leading families, and, like Valens, is a sort of perfect nobleman, but for different reasons -- Ducas is born to this role (and thus ends up forced out of it) while Valens has had to construct himself. Gace Daurenja is a psychopath, but a truly brilliant inventor and engineer -- apparently the only man superior in that sense to Vaatzes. Lucao Psellus is a minor clerk in Mezentia who, partly because of his fascination with the motivations of Ziani Vaatzes, is thrust into an unwanted role as leader of the defense of the city. Add smaller roles for Veatriz, for Vaatzes' wife Ariessa, for the original chairman of the ruling organization of the Mezentines, Boioannes ... These are a group of people who are mostly, viewed objectively, quite awful people, but who are often quite sympathetic.

One of Parker's great strengths is explanation of technology -- approprate for something called The Engineer Trilogy. (See for example a really neat article about swords in Subterranean, Fall 2011.) In these books there are long and fascinating sections about subjects like metalworking, hunting, and siege defenses.

Parker is a very funny writer, in a very black way, and these books are continually funny. Some of the humor is cleverness, some is very dry irony. None is slapstick, nor is any verbal hijinks.

The main shortcoming is that the plot, in its purposefully machinelike working out, becomes a bit implausible. On the one hand we are to believe that Vaatzes had his whole plan worked out from the beginning -- but there are enough clearly unplannable for contigencies (the whole question of Gace Daurenja, for one thing) that this just doesn't really make sense. The other problem is the ending -- the wrapup is a just a bit too "neat", in many ways. It's also morally queasy-making, as one group is just sort of brushed away. And the resolution of the central individual stories has the feel of the author manipulating the characters' reactions to make a point, rather than natural human responses.

At any rate, I certainly recommend these books ... and The Hammer is next on my list of Parker novels to try ...


2 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 21st, 2012 09:51 pm (UTC) (Link)

K.J. Parker

Please read "The Folding Knife" instead or before "The Hammer": it is probably Parker's strongest and tightest novel, but do yourself the favour and skip the prologue (3-4 pages) until you've finished the novel.
Events in "The Hammer" suggest btw that it takes place after "The Folding Knife". All of Parker's books have the same background world, though they are not part of a series per se.
I've read almost all of Parker's books except his Fencer-trilogy (on my list for after the summer) within the last year because I really like his writing.
From: ecbatan Date: May 26th, 2012 02:20 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: K.J. Parker

Thanks ... I'll look for THE FOLDING KNIFE, then.
2 comments or Leave a comment