Love and engineering; a recipe for armageddon

Devices and Desires — K.J. Parker
The Engineer Trilogy, book 1

Device-and-Desires

Mezentia, queen of the industrialized cities! Also the only industrialized city of note thanks to its habit of closing guarding its secrets through all available means, up to and including casual genocide; it is a very bad thing to give Mezentia the impression some of their intellectual property has fallen into your soon to be extremely and brutally dead hands.

As a side-effect of the obsession with secrecy, Mezentia decided to freeze all of its processes, justifying this in the name of perfection. This standardization has had benefits in terms of improving the quality of their goods at the cost of killing innovation, which is seen as an abomination. This proves unfortunate for wunderkind engineer Ziana Vaatzes, led by curiosity into heresy. Rather than submit to execution when his crime is noticed, he uses his profound grasp of physical principles to batter his way past his opponents and escape from the city. This saves his life but at the cost of abandoning his wife and child, who he loves very much.

But all is not lost! Because Vaatzes has a Plan.

Duke Orsea of Ermia has just carried out an extremely ill-fated attempt to attack Mezentia only to discover – the hard way - Mezentia’s “scorpions” (onagers) have a much greater range than any of the Ermians predicted. As a result, the Ermians were slaughtered by scorpion-fire long before they set eyes on their Mezentian enemies. As the battered remnants of Orsea’s army make their way back home to Ermia, Vaatzes convinces them to allow him to accompany them. This act of mercy will be the worst decision that Orsea ever makes.

Knowing that mere contact with him is likely to doom the city, Vaatzes offers his services to the Duke, and while Vaatzes is turned down because Ermia doesn’t really have the industrial base to exploit his knowledge, Vaatzes’ presence in Ermia is enough to provoke the Mezentians to decide to invade and exterminate everyone who might have spoken to Vaatzes. Vaatzes is aware of this. In fact he is counting on it. Vaatzes is playing a long game of revenge against his city and it is one that requires the sacrifice of the Ermians.

Although some of the Mezentians, in particular senior administrator Psellus, have qualms about committing genocide, none of them can see a way around it. To back down from the war on Ermia would require the Mezentians to change, something that is complete anathema to them.

Vaatzes’ little plan requires Mezentia to lose for a while, to weaken the city and damage its reputation as much as it can be. To this end, he volunteers his services to the defense of the city, building a fantastic number of - by his standards - low quality  scorpions. The first mercenary army that the Mezentians send walks into an ambush just like the Mazentian ambush that destroyed Orsea’s forces. Unfortunately for Ermia, not only is the old country that founded Mezetia effectively an infinite supply of people desperate enough to sign up as mercenaries and not only is Mezentia’s resolve quite firm regardless of their losses and the soaring cost of the war but Vaatzes is willing to take steps to ensure Ermia falls to Mezentia as soon as that serves his purpose.

Parker loves to take something usually seen as a virtue to twist it into a vice. In this case it’s love. Vaatzes’ obsessive desire to regain his wife and family drives him to orchestrate the deaths of many thousands, at least one full city-state and very likely more. There is another romance, a Forbidden Romance between two people mature enough to settle for an amiable relationship carried out through letters; Vaatzes manages to turn that into a weapon against Ermia as well.

While the well-oiled gears of Parker’s plot whirr efficiently on their way to carnage, weaknesses I noticed in previous Parkers appear more pronounced in this book. Parker often suffers from McDevitt’s Syndrome, where people from completely different cultures sound identical to each other and to us; this book offers a nice example of that. Also, I found it very hard to believe that the nomads I didn’t get around to mentioning could have populations as large as they are said to have or that the Mezentians policy of stasis could have the beneficial results for them that it did.

I was also struck by the general lack of significant female characters in this book. Parker is not generally the go-to author for memorable women but this takes that trend farther. Mostly the women seem to exist to motivate the men, a role that does not require them to be on stage for extended periods of time. I admit there is a culture of female traders but they are hardly the focus of the book.

All in all, a bit of a downer and not one I particularly enjoyed. I was hoping for comedic sociopathy and all I got was sociopathy.

I am pretty sure the Engineer Trilogy is still available but Orbit’s site is 503ing. Once it is back up, I will edit in appropriate links.

Ah, it’s up. The first relevant piece I found was an interview with the author. I seem to be coming up blank as far as a current edition of the book and its sequel go.


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Review Categories

By Author/Editor

Reviews by Date