Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review: The Engineer Trilogy, by K.J. Parker

There was a time, years ago now, when literally all I read were fantasy trilogies. I enjoyed that the longer format allowed for a story of more epic scope and that there was more time to spend getting to know the characters. But I had this fear of buying the first part of a trilogy, and then not being able to get a hold of the next volumes. (This was before I was able to internet shop, you see). So, if I saw a trilogy that sounded cool more often then not I’d just buy all three books then and there. What can I say? I was still living at home and didn’t have bills to pay.

Which is how I came to own thee parts to K.J. Parker’s Engineer Trilogy, ‘Devices and Desires,’ ‘Evil for Evil,’ and ‘The Escapement.’ I read the first one and a bit of the second and then just kinda stopped, I think possibly uni got in the way? I don’t know, I had a habit of not finishing books back then, for no real reason. (The reading habits of past Megan makes now Megan shake her head). I remember the trilogy, what I read of it, being dense and hard to get through. But in a good way. Like an extremely rich chocolate cake of which you can only eat one sliver at a time. Certainly my memories were positive enough that I recently decided to finish the damn thing, even though it meant rereading the first part again. (This is the reason I doubt I’ll ever complete the Wheel of Time trilogy, I just can’t bring myself to reread 10 volumes…)

My memories were correct, these are not books that lend themselves a fast reading, but as I said, that’s not a bad thing. The books are set on what I would guess is a small continent. On one side we have close neighbours the Vadini and the Eremians, who have only recently ended a centuries long war. On the other side of the continent are the Perpetual Republic, a dark skinned race who settled on the continent relatively recently. These guys are pretty epic engineers and had established a firm monopoly of all metal worked goods. They’re also pretty anal when it comes to deviating from their established blueprints. Think the Church in dark ages if someone tried to deviate from the bible… One guy, Ziani, makes some little improvements on a doll for his daughter and is sentenced to death for it. Pretty harsh, no? So anyway, he escapes to Eremia and sets about crafting an insanely intricate plan to be reunited with his family, and never mind if thousands of bodies are left in his plan's wake.

This is the trilogy’s driving plot which constantly pushes events forwards, but there are a number of other plots which eddy around it. We have the young duke Valens, ruler of the Vadini people, and his technically innocent but really not correspondence with Vetriz, the wife of the Eremian duke, Orsea, who is himself crippled by his own perceived shortcomings. And there’s Psellus, the Perpetual Republic bureaucrat who becomes slowly obsessed with understanding Ziani. And we can’t forget Mikal, an important Eremian nobel who’s honour is so unbending it’s bound to shatter….

And this hasn’t even stretched the surface of it all! If meticulously crafted plots are your thing, than you can really look no further than this. Every event has a cause and effect, with both tragedies and triumphs occurring naturally and with a sense of inevitability. You will find no deux ex machinas in the pages of these books, which is fitting when you consider that the closest any of the main races come to religion is the Perpetual Republic's blind adherence to their specifications.

Which makes for a refreshing change, to read a fantasy trilogy without any gods. I do occasionally enjoy books where the gods take human form and wander about missing shit up (Jenniffer Fallon's 'Demon Child' trilogy being an excellent example), but too often the inclusion of gods/God can become a short cut for the author. In the godless Engineer trilogy each character is responsible for their own lives, with no fate or destiny to nudge them this way or that. It’s a theme that runs strongly throughout the text, questions of choice and how much blame a man (or woman) should take for the result of their actions. Do the ends justify the means, and should an eye be taken for an eye? As I said, without the interference of some all knowing omnipotent presence to offer easy answers, it offers up some fascinating questions. (Which, upon finishing the books, I have answers for).

But of course would what really makes this book appeal to me is the characters. They’re a flawed, three dimensional bunch, and I would be hard pressed to identify which of them are bad guys and which are good. There are no heroes and villains here, just people. My favourite character is easily Duke Valens. Forced to take command after the early death of his father, Valens is an extremely competent and well liked duke. But what we can see that his adoring people can not, is that the guy’s a little bit of a sociopath. I wish that more of the trilogy had been told from Valen’s unique point of view. I also enjoyed watching Psellus's slow transformation from a laughed at pen pusher to, well, I don’t want to give anything away…

I do have some minor quibbles with the ending of the triology. Considering how well rounded the other aspects of the book are I felt that the way the author handled the portrayal of a fourth race, a nomadic people who live beyond the desert, to be, well, I don’t want to say racist, but let’s just say I found it a little problematic. I also had a little trouble buying Ziani's plan, once the whole of it had been revealed, it seemed like some of the stuff he claimed to have figured out and done was just a little bit of a stretch. Lastly, while if you look at the three books as one very long tome is is all balanced perfectly, but if you take each book on its own merits then the second volume suffers from some pretty bad middle book blues.

All in all though I found this to a well written and extremely thought provoking trilogy which offers something very different to the plethora of other three book fantasy tales out there.

How did I get these books? Bought them


  1. Probably my favorite fantasy trilogy - for all the reasons you've mentioned. Character-based, non-traditional, provocative, mysterious... and darkly fun.

    Great review!

  2. I read K.J. Parker's first two trilogies, the first one I absolutely loved and the second was pretty awful, I'm reading "The Folding Knife" right now. It seems K.J. Parker loves to have a surprise ending, but it's either hit or miss IMO