|"The quickest way to a mans heart," said the
instructor, "is proverbially through his stomach. But if you want to get into his
brain, I recommend the eye-socket." Thus starts Devices and Desires
by K. J. Parker. Devices and Desires is the first book of
Parkers Engineer Trilogy, and is set in his own un-named fantastic world.
Delightfully, all the actors are human: no elves, dwarves or mythological creatures in
sight. Instead, we have two modest mountain duchies, Eremia and Vadania, and one coastal
city state, Mezentia, plus a few nomads. Eremia and Vadania are traditional medieval, and
are vaguely modelled on Italian duchies. They have recently concluded a peace treaty after
years of constant feuding. Mezentia is what happens when engineers run a city, and is
ruled by the specification.
Ziani Vaatzes is on the run, having escaped his
execution for breaking specification. All he wants is to be re-united with his wife and
daughter. He stumbles into the remains of an Eremian army, defeated by the war machines
that he helped build. The Mezentine council decide that Vaatzes must die and, since the
Eremians wont hand him over, declare war on the backward duchy. Vaatzes helps
construct war machines to defend Eremia from the mercenary army the Mezentines send to
destroy their new enemy.
This book is full of delightful and interesting characters, and not everything proceeds
as one might expect. Duke Valens of Vadania carries a torch for the wife of Duke Orsea of
Eremia, and carries out a clandestine correspondence with her. He also is the epitome of
Machiavellis enlightened Prince, keeping his enemies and the reader off balance with
wonderfully nuanced responses to the problems besetting him. Orsea is plagued with doubts,
having inherited the duchy by marriage. He constantly feels overwhelmed by the task. His
able chancellor and probably the most powerful noble in Eremia, Miel Dukas, keeps Eremia
running and competently guides Ziani into the world of the nobility. Councillor Psellus of
Mezentia is a stolid middle manager, suddenly promoted to the Department of Necessary Evil
(the War Commission), and seems to be forever out of the loop.
Devices and Desires is a wonderful read, and kept me
enthralled to the end. Oh, and the Mezentines are dark skinned while everyone else are