Review: Devices and Desires, K. J. Parker

Why, why, why would my library purchase one book in a trilogy and not the other ones? Why, library, why? In my library’s defense, it has managed to lose its copy of Devices and Desires too, so unless you were searching on the library catalogue, you’d have no way of knowing the library owns anything but Purple and Black and The Company by K. J. Parker, and you would not therefore be disappointed to be unable to find Devices and Desires on the shelf. Happily for me, a copy showed up on PaperbackSwap at an ideal moment. But that doesn’t solve the problem of my library’s not having the second two books in the series when I really really want to read them.

(If I sound a trifle put out with my library at the moment, it is only because there is a rude librarian who suddenly seems to be there every time I go. She made me stand and watch her check in my books, although I have repeatedly assured her that I trust her to check them in, and then she didn’t give me a receipt when she finished. It really doesn’t make any sense. In the event of an error, I can’t go back to the library and say, Well, I watched the librarian check in my books, because I haven’t got any proof that those books were checked in.)

Devices and Desires is all about an engineer called Ziani Vaatzes, who gets arrested and sentenced to death for trying to improve upon the engineering laws in his country of Mezentia. Using his engineering skills he escapes from Mezentia and happens to be found by the Eremian army, which is fleeing in disarray after a resounding defeat by the Mezentines. He then sets about getting, more or less, revenge, using his engineering skills.

(I just discovered that, by a vicious trick of the universe, the library at the university where I spent my summer had the second two books in this damn trilogy. But not the first. So I couldn’t have read the whole trilogy while I was there, and I can’t read it now that I’m home either. Come on, PaperbackSwap! You have helped me so many times before!)

I’ve said before that I enjoy books that are full of political machinations, and Devices and Desires delivers them in spades. On one side of the world, you have the Mezentines, with their endless euphemistically-named committees and their devotion to precision in everything. On the other side, you have Eremia and the Vadani, two countries that have recently made peace after years of brutal war; you have the leader of Eremia, Orsea, a sweet kind man but an ineffectual ruler; and you have the leader of Vadani, Duke Valens, whose only breathing space between ruthlessly effective ruling decisions is the secret correspondence he carries on with Orsea’s wife Veatriz. And of course, primarily, and the source of all the suspense and fun, there is Vaatzes, pulling strings.

I’m giving this book five stars because that’s how much I enjoyed it. Normally when I have enjoyed a book as much as I enjoyed this one, I want to go out and buy copies of it for everyone I know. In this case, though it grieves me to say it, many of the people I know would hate it and be bored to tears. And it’s very hard to say who would hate it and who would love it, and I really don’t know to whom I can recommend it with a clear conscience, or whether they would listen if I did. If someone had described it to me earlier this year, I’d have said it didn’t sound like my sort of thing at all, military fantasy with an engineer protagonist and lots of long-winded descriptions of the clothes you wear to a boar hunt, the marching patterns of various armies, the different bits that go into engineering a Mezentine murder machine.

Except, except, except I loved this book. It has one of those lovely, carefully constructed plots that sets up its major points well in advance of when they will be needed, so that by the time they come back around you have half-forgotten them. One might argue that the ending of this book is too neat, but I loved it: all the little cogs, which I had watched Parker put in place over the course of this quite long novel, suddenly proved to be a complete machine, the output of which was, dismayingly, inevitable. Plus, there was all manner of irony. Irony! Beautiful, Greek-tragedy-like irony. I am mad for it.

Another complaint I have seen is that the characters are not well-developed. As with the long descriptions thing, I can see how a reader would get this impression, but I didn’t at all. The main characters are people for whom keeping secrets and maintaining facades is a necessity, and so they do it. We also see what they are thinking and why they are acting that way, and (I love this) we see nearly all of them from several different points of view. Orsea appears this way inside his head, and that way from the perspective of his wife, and another way from the perspective of the foreigner Vaatzes. Plus, apart from poor Orsea, the main point-of-view characters are competent, and that is an exceptionally attractive, if not particularly attractive-sounding, quality.

Soooooo….I don’t know whether you would like this or not. The closest thing I can compare it to, with the reservation that it contains far more stuff about boar-hunting, engineering, and military strategy, would be Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series. It is the same sort of fantasy world, avoiding the dragons-and-wizards elements of high fantasy in favor of the intricacies of international politics, and it’s got similarly tense undercurrents in character interactions, and it’s got puppetmastery characters orchestrating the downfall of nations.

Other reviews, but I wish more people had loved it more unreservedly:

Bookworm Blues
Genre Reader
The OF Blog
Ubiquitous Absence
BookCynic

Tell me if I missed yours!

  • Odd title, because it’s also a P.D. James title, AND, the title of a book about the history of contraceptives in America.

    • I know! And I don’t even think it’s a terribly good title for this book. KJ Parker has many gifts, but titling books is not among them.

  • “the clothes you wear to a boar hunt…” Huh. Until now I’d never wondered!

    • Yeah….me either. Of course, I skipped that bit so I still don’t know, but then I don’t really feel like I need to know.

  • anna

    …that might be my fault. Cause I was making a pointed commentary for Mumsy when returning my books. Sorry.

    • You were, seriously? That’s really obnoxious. Especially because it turns out Mumsy still had one of the books.

      • anna

        Yeah, a bit. SOrry. In fairness, I didn’t mention Mumsy, I just put the books up then hung around to watch them, and when they asked I said I was staying to make sure they were checked in cause I’d heard people had trouble.

  • Oh what a tale of library woe. So . . . you guys look alike, I take it? You don’t want to make an enemy of your librarian, though. Bad as making one of Vaatzes. I recommend a humorous explanatory postcard, and/or a bag of wrapped candy. Like, the sealed kind to be handed out to trick or treaters at halloween, so their parents will know it hasn’t been tampered with. Otherwise she will think you are trying to poison the staff.

    I guess I (almost) feel kind of sympathetic for a persecution complex over not-where-they’re-supposed-to-be books, having worked on the wrong side of the counter. It’s pretty frustrating. Librarians WANT to give you the books you want, and they WANT them to be where they’re supposed to be and checked in, and the HATE the prospect of having to ask you to pay fines or whatever. If they throve on conflict they wouldn’t be working in a library. With volunteers shelving books (much appreciated senior citizens, but also sometimes dotty), and multiple people moving piles, and multiple shifts, occasionally books just go missing or don’t go through the computer, even in the best library. I have hopelessly combed the non-fiction section for misshelved fiction and vise versa, and once I was conned by a milling crowd of middle-school aged boys and lost a copy of Burger Wuss that had never even been cataloged. I felt awful. They only wanted to read the graphic make-out scene. Get your parents to *buy* you your fictional jollies at Borders, and support a starving YA novelist, instead of stealing from the public library, you privileged little &#(ts!

    Pant. Pant. Pant.

    So.

    Devices and desires was a strange book for me. I was one of those people who neither loved it nor hated it, but both loved it and hated it. What I feared rather than underdeveloped characters was static ones. It was so much a book interested in all the other parts of storytelling as well as the characters, I was afraid the characters’ individual trajectories might get short shrift in the end, especially after the way Parker built my interest in Duke Valens at the start of the book, then never came back to that level of detail or empathy-tugging, once we started following Vaates. There were opportunities for development that Parker intentionally didn’t take. It’s been a while, but I remember sort of deciding to have faith that it was all part of his Vaates-like fiendishly accomplished plans, withhold judgement until I had read the rest of the series. Which my library didn’t have. But now they do, so hooray!

    • anna

      actually we don’t look at all alike. And I’m not home enough anymore that I should be easy to connect to Jen, except by the librarians who already know us.

      • Mumsy

        Yeah, the problem was me. The library sent me a bill for five books I KNEW I had returned. Upon searching inquiries (fiercely resisted by this librarian), four were brought to light on the shelves – some of them misshelved and all of them unchecked in. I fussed. She was nasty. (Sphincter factor of 9.5, I’d say) So now she is being revenge-filled.

        Um, this may be the moment to confess that the fifth book did turn up at my house. *blushes* BUT, initially I was extremely nice and friendly about all this – she was nasty from the first.

    • We don’t, but I was with my mother when she fussed at the librarians for having lost her books. They did lose four of them!

      I like a lot of the librarians, truly. There are only maybe two or three that I’ve grown to dislike over the years, and mostly it’s because they judge me about the books I check out. I really don’t blame the librarians when they can’t find a book for me. I have seen the pages shelving and I am well aware of the pitfalls there. :p

      Tell me what you think of the other books in the series! I interlibraryborrowrequested all three books in one of Parker’s earlier trilogies, on the basis that if the library suddenly stops having interlibrary loans, I can get the Engineer books at the bookshop, but I can’t get the earlier books (they never have them! it’s so uncool!). I’ve decided I can buy myself the second Engineer trilogy book as a treat if I do something really good, like get a job. 😀

    • Well, okay, she sounds awful!! (There are a baddies, though I mostly found them at the reference desk.) One of my jobs (that involved all the shelf-combing) was taking a stack of missing-book bills whenever they got printed and basically looking everywhere I could think of that they might have possibly got misshelved, before the bills were mailed. I remember, with a bill for one particularly snippy patron who had an unreturned mystery for a year, that she probably took with her to her winter home in Arizona and lost there, but she still didn’t want to pay for it, I read *every single* book-spine in the mystery section of the library. And I was unfailingly polite and kind to even the most shameless habitual non-returners (we didn’t have fines at that library, and it was a wealthy community, so there were a lot of them.) I perfected the painless, smiling reminder. “Did you know you still ___ at home, by the way?” There’s no point in being nasty anyhow; disliking the library staff isn’t going to make anyone bring back books.

  • As soon as I’ve finished my stack of DWJ books (and others), I shall reborrow this from the library and greedily devour it. I want some more K.J. Parker in the worst possible way.

    • Me toooooooo! I wish my library had all her books! I’m in the mood for such books!

  • When I started reading this, I immediately thought of Megan Whalen Turner… and then you mentioned it too! Very cool.

    • Neat! That makes me feel like my comparison actually holds up (yay). 😀

  • Oh isn’t it tricky when you’ve loved a book but know that lot of other people wouldn’t! The Orhan Pamuk novel I read recently was a bit like that. Still you are very even handed and show the love whilst expressing the caveats so your work here is done. 🙂

    • Hahaha, good to hear. I know a bunch of people who MIGHT like it, but I feel like I don’t know their reading tastes well enough to recommend it properly. Like, I have an uncle who’s an engineer, and another uncle who’s interested in military history, but neither of them reads much fantasy. Soooo, conundrum. Or my sister’s boyfriend likes alternate-world-history type books and he likes fantasy, but I just haven’t known him long enough to feel sure that he’d like this. :/

  • JoV

    Yes, why why why does the library do this? why do they buy one book from a trilogy and forgot about the other 2? I find it very mind boggling!!! 😀

    • I guess nobody was checking out the other books by this author, and they didn’t feel like the rest of the trilogy would circulate either? Darn them and their presumably fact-based purchasing strategies! :p Didn’t they know I would someday want the other books??

  • Rude librarians are the worst aren’t they?

    I loved this review, it is so rambly but in a good way 🙂

    • Thanks!

      I feel like I’ve been unfair to my librarians. The majority of librarians at my library are so sweet and helpful and I love them.

  • I agree with Iris about it being rambly in a good way. 🙂 And you’ve definitely piqued my curiosity about this book.

    • It’s an interesting book! I guess what I would say is that if you don’t care for the writing style in the first few chapters, you probably won’t care for the book. So there’s that at least – if you start it and don’t like it, you won’t have to feel you have to carry on waiting for it to get good. :p

  • Wow, sorry about your problems with the library! What a drag. Glad you loved this book so much though!

    • 90% of the time the library is nothing but wonderful, so I really shouldn’t complain! 🙂

  • Based on your description, I am not sure if I would like this book or not. The way you reacted to it does sway me, but then again, I am usually am swayed by really great and enthusiastic reviews. I am glad to hear that you were able to find the third book, because frankly, it would have sucked if you couldn’t have finished the series. And also, the rude librarian? Well, she just needs to go away.

    • Like I said to laughingstar, it’s one of those books where you either like the way it’s written or you don’t. I knew from one or two chapters in that I was going to love the book no matter what happened in it. I just loved the writing style. So you could dip your toes and see what you think. :p

  • That’s funny about your librarian. I often get ideas on how to make my library better. Too bad we don’t have a say. I sort of wish they weren’t a city run thing, rather private run, cozier, and more community friendly. That’s my two bits. Bye for now!

    • You know, my library is city-run, by a biggish city, but it’s incredibly community-oriented (at least it seems that way to me). I’ll have the occasional unpleasant experience there, but as a rule it’s nothing but friendly and nice.

  • Amy

    A clone of your librarian works at my library! I swear the woman loves being mean to people who like to read. And she’s always there when I go! Recently, the library misplaced a book I returned and were not happy about it when I told the check-in/out desk they had lost it and not me. They did find — back on the shelf where it was supposed to be.

    • I hate it when that happens. So far I’ve never had to pay for a book, but I’ve had several experiences of my books not being checked in properly. More frequently when I have a cranky experience at the library, it’s because the librarians are snotty to me about the things I’m checking out. One time an old guy librarian asked me if I was OLD ENOUGH for something I was reading. (I was in college at the time.) Hrmph.

  • Matt

    The title is not a reference to PD James or contraception, but to the General Confession from the Book of Common Prayer : “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts; we have offended against thy holy laws.” Fairly apposite to the subject matter of the book, and a neat pun in the bargain.

  • Ela

    That sounds really interesting. I have not heard of Parker before and must now head for the Internets to find some.