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Devices and Desires in the first part of a trilogy by fantasy writer KJ Parker and sets out to tell the tale of an engineer called Vaatzes, the engineer is a Mezentine. Mezentine is a kind of Roman style society in which as the dominant country have set themselves up as the controlling country in there part of the world. They have taken the love of mechanisation and machines to new heights and believe everything is controlled by the rigid retention to dogma set down by the various city guilds. When one of the guilds members is arrested for a petty offence, in which he makes a toy without any practical use he is sentenced to death. Vaatzas the engineer in question is a man in a rigid society who has an inquiring mind and using the knowledge of angles, leverage and force manages to escape his prisoners.
Vaatzas now on the run meets up the defeated Eremenian army which had been routed by the Mezentines the day before, captured as a spy he informs the Eremenian duke that with the use of his engineers skills he can turn them into a force which could withstand Mezentia. The books central core is now set, Vaatzas is the main character and his actions are those which dictate the novel; however, others also become important characters there is the duke of Eremenia Orsea, his friend the Ducas Miel and the chief falconer Jalcon.
They all return to the Eremenian capital and the engineer persuades the council to allow him to develop weapons which could withstand the oncoming Mezentine invasion. The three main characters Vaatzas, Orsea and Miel now await the invasion and their focus is on surviving the attack.
This is the core of the novel and as you know this is the first part of a trilogy, you can guess that the events are going to go badly for the main characters. Indeed, the novel becomes a little bogged down for the middle third of the novel because in truth the main events are at the beginning with Vaatzas' defection and the final third which is Mezentine's invasion. This middle third tries to fill in many of the details about the contrasting lifestyles of the Eremenians and the Mezentines, one are largely rural and the other hugely mechanical. They could be viewed in a certain view as England pre and post Industrial revolution. Firstly a society dominated by class, wealth and suppression of minorities and then a hugely industrial country which maintains its dominant world position by maintaining a huge technological advantage. This is fully explored as the engineer introduces the backwards not just to military technology but any technology at all, the need to show that Mezentine is bad and Eremenia is good does rather grate when the Eremenian way of life is so dominated by a very select elite.
KJ Parker as with all his novels peppers the book with very real feeling technology, this does feel like a fantasy novel which has pulled itself out of the classic dark ages sword and sorcery epic into a fantasy story in which technology is king. Here we have invading armies not carrying glowing flames and shouting spells but with huge seige equipment, cannon, arrow throwers and proto gunpowder. This is fantasy for those heading towards the horror of mechanisation, this is fantasy leading to the killing fields of Flanders and this is fantasy in which spells have been subverted by guns and gunpowder.
This is as I said the first in a trilogy; the book does read well and unlike most books in a trilogy could be read as a standalone novel but like a decent TV pilot episode leaves the ending open for further episodes. The main characters all change their positions by the end and it adds extra dimensions which encourages the reader to go and read the next in the series.
This is a fantasy book for those who are bored with boy wizards or pale vampires and want a bit of social realism away from the classic fantasy setting.