Devices and Desires – K.J. Parker

Publishers Weekly: 

Parker (the Scavenger trilogy) raises the bar for realistic fantasy war craft with this series opener. When the engineering guild sentences Ziani Vaatzes to death for improving on its supposedly perfect specifications for mechanical toys, he manages to escape Mezentia and throws in his lot with its recently defeated enemy, city-state Eremia. In exile, Vaatzes sets up shop making weapons, but his real goal is to create a new kind of engine—one made of human components, designed to reunite him with his family. He painstakingly executes a slow-moving master plan involving love, betrayal and secrets among the two countries’ leaders. The tragic aftermath of the climactic battle forces a rereading of all that went before. It takes some hard slogging to get through assiduously researched technical descriptions of everything from dressing a duke to hunting a boar, and a few too many coincidences and expository speeches mar Parker’s otherwise exquisite feat of literary engineering.

Let me pose a question to you, dear reader. How could I not automatically love a book where the first line is: “The quickest way to a man’s heart,’ said the instructor, ‘is proverbially through his stomach. But if you want to get into his brain, I recommend the eye-socket.”? It was love at first sight.
I try not to give too much of the plot away in my reviews, so I won’t re-hash everything you can read about on the back cover of the book or by reading the thing yourself. Instead I will say that Devices and Desires is a complex, quickly moving book that is filled with what I am quickly discovering to be Parker’s unique, cynical voice (and I do love dry cynicism).
This book is told from several different points of view, but like the title points out, the main plot is about engineers and the importance of the machines they make. Parker deftly weaves her chapters so each one lies atop the last like another cog in a great machine, adding more color and depth to the world and the overall plot (s)he is creating. Perhaps one of the most artful parts of the plot, in my perspective, was that no matter how complex things got the force that Parker focused on that was responsible for all the change and movement taking place was profoundly simple and easy to overlook: love.
The main character of the book, Ziani, is captivating with his complexity. He’s an obsessive genius, driven by the love of his family to create machines as a means to his own end. The sheer maverick genius and ruthless cunning this character imbued astounded me. Parker does a marvelous job with Ziani. In the hands of a lesser author, this character would have probably fallen flat due to the sheer complexity he inhibited but Parker never fails. He’s alive, believable, breathing and absolutely ruthless with his shocking intelligence.
The writing was incredible. Parker has a knack for descriptive, flowing prose that suck the reader in automatically, showing, but not telling. There were points where the details on mechanical processes and devices were so complex I was completely lost, but it’s easy to overlook with the writing and the book quickly recovers.
The plot of Devices and Desires was full of twists and turns. While many of the twists were unpredictable and rather surprising, I did find that quite a few which where probably written to be surprising, were actually predictable. Overall, the predictable plot twists didn’t subtract from the quality or the narration or book at all. It was still a joy to see how Parker accomplished what (s)he accomplished.
It was quite incredible to see how Parker took events which seemed inconsequential and wove them into his/her plot, making them important toward the end of the book. While some readers might be frustrated with this book, with the (at times) lack of action and incredibly detailed inconsequential seeming events, its worth pushing through Devices and Desires to see how it all works out in the end.
This is the first book of a trilogy, but don’t let that scare you away. It’s worth reading regardless of the fact it’s a series book. It doesn’t fall into many of the familiar holes that many first books of series seem to fall into (agonizingly slow building plots, a book filled with introductions and etc). Sometimes I feel like I know exactly how a trilogy is going to end by reading the first book in it, but not this one. Parker’s world is too complex, her characters are too colorful to be predictable.
There are a few authors whose books I read and then I have to sit back and think “how the hell does someone get blessed with a brain like that one?” Steven Erikson is one of them and now Parker has joined my list. This book is complex, quick moving, unpredictable and filled with astounding depth that is applicable both to the book and to the real world. Parker’s writing is nothing short of amazing. Reading Devices and Desires is like taking a walk through another world just as complex and fraught with light, dark and gray as our own.  If, sometimes, the plot does seem to get bogged down with the detailed workings of machines, it’s no big deal. It quickly recovers and moves onward, each chapter adding a layer of depth and meaning to the overall plot. I will say that some readers may find the plot staggering and the incredible amount of detail slightly bogging. It is easily possible for readers to find this book hard to push through due to both of those factors and the gray morality might make it difficult for some readers to fully connect with the characters and the world. 
I am officially on a K.J. Parker binge. I usually try to put a few weeks between books in a series that I read but I just can’t do it with this one. I feel like an addict just waiting for my next hit from Parker’s amazing world and another peek into Ziani’s staggering mind. What a ride! 
Readers who get frustrated when books aren’t filled with absolute blacks and whites in characters and morality should probably steer clear of this one. I don’t think there is any good and bad in this book and while the reader can sympathize with pretty much everyone at some point, the characters are absolutely morally gray. This is a challenging read in some respects. There’s an amazing amount of depth to pretty much everything, so be prepared. Put on your scuba gear before reading this. It’ll suck you in and pull you down into its fathomless depths. Its essential to explore those depths to fully appreciate the plot (in my opinion); so, I guess what I’m saying is, if you want a light, escapist sort of read, Devices and Desires is not for you. And, as my last warning, fans of magic be aware there is none in this book. 
4/5 stars

8 Responses

  • PeterWilliam

    Nice review and great book! Hope you enjoy the remainder of the trilogy.

  • Sarah

    Thanks! I'm sure I will. I can't believe I didn't read K.J. Parker sooner!

  • ediFanoB

    Sarah, Sarah, you can't do this. Don't write such reviews. You force me to change my plans concerning buying and reading books. The Engineer trilogy is the only K J Parker trilogy which is not on my shelf.

    After reading THE COMPANY my next K J Parker book will be THE BELLY OF THE BOW, which is the second in the FENCER trilogy.

  • Sarah

    I've heard the Fencer trilogy is really good. I have to admit after looking at it on Amazon it has intrigued me. I just can't get over how much I love K.J Parker's writing. I read your post on The Company. I think I might have to put every think (s)he wrote on my "to be read" pile. I don't think I've been this excited about an author for a while…

    My pile of books I want to read keeps expanding and expanding and expanding….

  • ediFanoB

    That is the bane of all book lovers 😉
    K J Parker is one of my favorite authors.

    Unfortunately the novellas PURPLE AND BLACK and BLUE AND GOLD are quite expensive.

    For your information: Download K J Parker bibliography for free

  • Seak (Bryce L.)

    Between you, Peter, and Edi, I really need to start reading Parker. Thanks for the review.

  • Carin B.

    This does sound really good. I think someone nominated it in the Shelfari Fantasy/Science Fiction BotM for September. If it wins I might have to pick it up and read it (oh my Mount TBR. It's going to look like Everest soon). I like those grey area-type books. Sounds fantastic. Excellent review. I pimp your blog to all sci-fi and fantasy readers! 🙂

  • Jared

    Brilliant review – glad you liked it so much. His/her other books really are just as wonderful (all various levels of exceptional craft/depressing/genius).

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