Sometimes, I get frustrated when I read stories that I believe could have been much better if the author had chosen to emphasize X rather than Y, as there really were glints of promise in those stories. But I do not write reviews just to give my rather biased take on what should have been. Instead, I shall endeavor, as with the case of the recent US release of K.J. Parker's Devices and Desires (the opener for the Engineer Trilogy), to concentrate more on what the author set out to do and how well I believe she accomplished her task.
At its core, Devices and Desires is a revenge story starring the most unheroic of people, an engineer, Ziani Vaates, and his quest to exact a most methodical revenge upon his native people for condemning him to death for the mere audacity of improving an old, but prescribed by law as the only method to be used, design. Managing to escape execution but declared to be an Abomination, Ziani escapes to his people's enemies, where he bargains with them, offering his talents as an engineer in exchange for a future fight against the people who had taken from him his livelihood and his family.
Most of the book is devoted to the precision in which Ziani devotes himself to this cause of sacrificing lives in exchange for a cold, implacable desire for revenge. Parker does a very good job of shaping her narrative to fit this cool, calculating person and his thoughts often contain many metaphors comparing power struggles and personal relations to the tensions found in a taut bowstring or in a crafted siege weapon. To this point, she has succeeded with her apparent story aims; Ziani's revenge becomes quite understandable due to how Parker has constructed the narrative.
Some of the other characters, such as Ziani's enemies, such as Valens, do not receive as careful of a narrative molding. However, they are interesting enough to make the story conflicts intriguing. It certainly helps that Parker does imbue those other characters with a wit that is different from the cold one that Ziani displays on occasion.
The pacing is hit-or-miss, however. At times, it seems as though little is going to happen anytime soon, when a chapter or two later, so much has occurred. Hopefully this will be an issue that will be corrected in the latter two volumes due out later this year. While such herky-jerkiness does detract a bit from the overall experience, for the most part, readers who enjoy reading a story that has a lot of detail devoted to the surroundings and especially to weaponry will find this to be a very enjoyable read.
However, those readers such as myself who prefer a greater focus on character development and on illustrating the various conflicts will find this book frustrating on occasion. There are so many hints of an engaging narrative here, but it appears to be overwhelmed by the technical details a bit too much. Sometimes, less is more and while "worldbuilding" junkies in particular might enjoy that aspect of Parker's book, I found it to be a bit too much gravy, making for a rather sodden main course underneath. But despite my personal reservations, Parker does do enough right here to make me curious about the remaining two volumes and that alone is enough for me to suggest this for people to read this upcoming holiday season.
Release Date: October 25, 2007 (US), released a few years ago in the UK. Tradeback
Publisher: Orbit Books (US)