Friday, January 4, 2008

Devices & Desires: Book Review

Speaking of Devices & Desires, the first volume in K.J. Parker's Engineer Trilogy--well, it's really good and I highly recommend it. Paul Witcover recommended it to me months ago; I bought off Amazon UK because it wasn't then available in the US (now there's a very stylish trade paperback out), but it sat in my Pile while I finished FLORA'S DARE.

Now FLORA'S DARE is gone from my hands and I've been making good inroads into the Pile, and Devices & Desires has been devoured, dispatched and much enjoyed. It's high fantasy, but with a twist--instead of being founded on magic, the Obligatory Evil Empire has been founded on a system of technology so arcane and complicated that it might as well be magic, tho' as far as my paltry engineering knowledge tells me, said engineering is all quite real world. There is no magic at all--no wizards, no witches, etc., just artisans, craftsmen, and--hunters. The Non Obligatory Evil Empire is very medieval in tone--or at least, idealized medieval, operating within a chivalric code that probably didn't actually exist outside of literature. At first thought, one would think that pitting these two vastly different societies--one tres gallant, the other very Big Blue, wouldn't work but it does. Very well. Very originally well. Yeah, saying a fantasy book is stunningly original is a bit of a cliche--and hardly ever actually true--but I think that in this case the claim is well made. I've not read such an unfantastic fantasy book in a long time, if possibly ever. And I mean that nicely, as a good thing. High fantasy is not my thing normally but this book--high fantasy--is just my thing.

Clearly the author knows lots about systems engineering and the art of courtly love and makes good use of the details for these two sports. Should you be worried that the characters get lost in this shuffle, no fear. There's lots of shifting points of view, usually coming back to the same five characters. And although none of these characters are instantly compelling, they all quietly grow on you until you find yourself really caring what happens to them. They have a certain modernity to their speech which should be jarring in a high fantasy book--people are told to "buzz off" for example--but somehow that isn't jarring at all. In fact, the casual language is a refreshing change from the normal high-faultin' medievally language usually found in this genre.

In fact, I would say that about the series as a whole--it is deceptively quiet--at first it feels as though maybe not much is happening action-wise and that there's too much introspection and exposition on mechanical matters. You don't feel bored, but you don't feel compelled either--but you keep reading and then suddenly you realize you've been totally sucked in and can't wait to find out what happens next.

I'm in the middle of Evil for Evil, volume 2 of the series, and am trying to pace myself. Each book is 700 pages long--that seems like a LOT but you'd be amazed how quickly those pages fly by. I'm in danger of running out of book before I run out of travel.

Oh, and did I mention one of the most deviously evil bad guys to come along in a long long time...?

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