Review: Devices and Desires
The first thing that comes to mind to mention for K.J. Parker’s first entry into her Engineer Trilogy, DEVICES AND DESIRES (Amazon), is that the author knows how to do her research. There are very technical descriptions for nearly everything in the novel, and it really lends a lot of credibility to both the story and the writer. However it isn’t without drawbacks.
We will get to those later though; let’s do like we were taught and focus on the positive. The book was interesting and the plot is engaging. Most of the character’s exploits are fun to read, with a few exceptions. The plot is also laden with political intrigue and it plays out remarkably well.
OK, we did our job as reviewers and at least acknowledged the good.
The biggest failing of the book is it’s most basic premise. The main character, the titular engineer, sets out to create a machine capable of reuniting him with his lost family. Fine and dandy. Where everything goes awry, however, is that we have no idea where this guy mastered the art of psychological manipulation. Wasn’t he an amazing engineer?
We can believe he can improve upon machines, which is the reason he is exiled and separated from his family, but we cannot simply believe he has the capacity to create a multi-national machine made entirely of human components. The engineer plans every little choice, move, and action every other character in the series makes, and manipulates them all into making those said choices. It is simply, and completely, unbelievable. Machines are predictable and controllable. People are not.
You’re saying, “Up yours, you elitists. You want believable? This is fantasy. Have you forgotten?” (By the way, thanks for acknowledging that we are, indeed, elitists. We are like the Marines, only much fewer, and much prouder. Moving on…)
DEVICES AND DESIRES takes a fascinating idea, along with the technical knowledge...and then makes it feel contrived. We know Parker could do better.
No we haven’t forgotten. What makes fantasy strong is the characters and how believable they are. That is how the fantasy is capable of such exotic and unfamiliar settings and such. Without believable characters the fantasy genre collapses. K.J. Parker seems to have forgotten this when she created her supposed everyman, who is in all actuality, an intellectual superman.
The other drawbacks of DEVICES AND DESIRES are the coincidental events that would make Stephen King happy. (Yep. That’s right. We just made a dig on two authors in one sentence. Yippee for us.) By the end of the book, you will most likely be doing the same as we did. Shaking your head saying, “What? Really?”. The plot also slows down in parts from Parker’s expansive detailing of the technical machinations of the engineered creations in the book. If you are a technophile, this may interest you–it interested us slightly. But all told, it was too high in volume, and detracted far too much from the pacing of the plot.
Our final decision about the book is that it is “meh.” Worth the read, not your money. Visit the library and check it out first to see if you like it. Or borrow it from a friend (but remember to treat the book nicely). The second and third entries, EVIL FOR EVIL (Amazon) and THE ESCAPEMENT (Amazon) respectively offer much of the same fare. If you liked this first book, your mind won’t be changed by the others and you will be satisfied by the ending. If you are like us and thought “meh”, or hated it, you will wish you had stopped after the first book, we do.
- Recommended Age: 18+ (if only because we think it may be a little too technically verbose for teens, but then again they may like it)
- Language: We don't remember anything real explicit
- Violence: Lots of people die, but it is handled very mildly
- Sex: None
Series links: The Engineer
Nick’s Note: I really feel like this trilogy should have been named The Gambler Trilogy, because that is what the main character does most. He gambles, and almost always, arguably, wins. That’s not exciting. What makes winning so awesome when you’re gambling, other than the money, is how rare it is.
I have to say that I do agree with you about the fallacy of the crux of the book: engineers are masters of manipulating machinery and therefore manipulating people as you would a machine should be just as easy. And yet, even though that statement is false, I think to a certain degree there's a measure of pomposity in the minds of most engineers that makes them think it could be true. So, the fact that the main character thinks this way isn't necessarily way out there, it's just that everything works out for him so well that makes the story unbelievable. But if you can get over that “little” hump? Man. There's some really good character building and storyline to be had in this book and the other two in the trilogy. I mean, seriously, you can't say you didn't nearly fall out of your seat when the random POV soldier came along with his army to burn the grain silo. Or the scene where they make the cannon? Intense. (Both scenes in Escapement, I think) Anyhow, It's that kind of stuff that I live for in books.
There were definitely some really great moments, interesting characters, and tricky plots. However that “little” problem is just way too big to ignore.
It's not like we HATED the book, but the problems in it were such that we couldn't, in good conscious, recommend it immediately to everyone.
I really like what you said about the pomposity of the engineer. If KJ Parker had focused on that, and given him some conflict in finding out that wasn't true this story would have been two thumbs up for me.
While true that making Vaatzes a more “realistic” character–by having him find out that manipulation of people isn't so easy as his engineering mind would suggest–would have made the story different, I don't know that I would have liked it any better/worse. From what I saw, he was more of a driving force for the books. He was the catalyst that put the other main characters through all of the torture and mayhem that ensued. And while it's true that Parker's decision to have him play this kind of character was risky, I felt satisfied at the end of the series with what Vaatzes got for his efforts. It was the growth of the other characters and their trials that I focused on for the realism that you were looking for in Vaatzes, and so for me it wasn't tough to overlook the “little” problem.
Interesting perspective though. Of the few people I know who have read this book/series, most of them tend to agree with you. I admit to being biased. I am, after all, an engineer.
I do admit the last few pages of the last book were incredibly entertaining. Vaatzes reward for his efforts was one of the best things I have seen Parker do.
I would be interested in seeing whether her other novels are any better/worse than this trilogy. Which one do you think we should do?
OSC commented about her three trilogies (Fencer, Scavenger, Engineer) and said that the Engineer trilogy was done the best. I have designs on reading all of them, however, her most recent (Purple and Black, 120 pg novella) is supposed to be very good and was just released by Subterranean Press. The Company (432 pg stand-alone) was quite good as well. I'd suggest one of those.
The Company was pretty enjoyable, and interesting as a study on human interaction and how it is never exactly how we perceive it to be. I found myself wishing The Company was a trilogy and the Engineer Trilogy a stand-alone.
By the way, Purple & Black is absolutely brilliant. In all honesty, I don't know how anyone could read that one and not just love Parker. She's definitely won me over.