Wednesday, February 2, 2011

K.J. Parker - The Engineer Trilogy

K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife is the story of an amoral man’s life who, during his ruthless rise to power, ends up greatly benefiting his society. After hundreds of pages of us seeing his callous beneficence, he says:

 "A hundred of my predecessors tried to make the world a better place…They tried so hard, we’ve had poverty, economic collapse, and so many wars I lose count. My approach is, I try and make money for myself in a way that benefits the Republic." (p. 192, The Folding Knife)

The words sum up the entire novel, throw everything into a new perspective that illuminates every event of the text. The ideas have already been proven to us at that point, all that was left to do was to articulate what it was we’d just been shown.

The Engineer trilogy is, in many ways, The Folding Knife structured in reverse. In The Folding Knife we see Basso as an uncaring man who does great things, and then we learn why that is so, the theme of the book revealed once the supporting evidence is irrefutable. In the Engineer trilogy, on the other hand, the theme is an announced mission, a thesis statement; Vaatzes believes that people are machines, and he will manipulate them like machines (thereby proving that they are no more than lone cogs in a greater structure) to get back to where he was before his exile.

But theme does not work in reverse. Fiction is not science. You cannot show us what you mean to prove before you prove it, because in fiction the author is God; when the author can do literally anything that they can conceive, their evidence is worthless and fabricated, and it’s almost impossible to view anything they show us as anything but manipulative when you know from the start that they're trying to manipulate you.

And so it is in Devices and Desires. We are told that the characters are nothing but tools, and so we view them as nothing else. Everyone but Vaatzes appears subhuman, an automaton whose only unknown quality is just who is pushing them around. Scenes with Vaatzes become tensionless things, the reader just waiting for him to shove everyone around him over and stride off their cardboard corpses.

In almost any other book, I would chalk such a structural mishap up as an interesting failure, perhaps add something else the author did to my amazon wishlist in the hope that they figured out the proper order later, and move on. It’s not so easy to do that to the Engineer Trilogy, though, and the reason is that, exempting the untimely revelation of Vaatzes’ worldview, the trilogy is excellent.

The realization happens towards the end of the first book, and the realization is that, after hundreds of pages of Vaatzes calling events perfectly, manipulating everything just so, the engineer is not infallible. A certain character acts in a fashion that, at first, seems startlingly out of character – but wait, the role they were not cooperating with was never one that they’d designed, was not something laid down by either the character’s own willpower or by authorial fiat; the rule broken was one of Vaatzes’, and, if Vaatzes could be wrong about that, he could be wrong about anything, the various components of his machine suddenly given back their humanity and resurrected from the fleshy detritus they’d previously seemed to be.

The realization invigorates everything that follows, making the question no longer how will Vaatzes accomplish his goals? but rather will Vaatzes accomplish his goals? with decent helpings of what are Vaatzes’ goals? and should he accomplish them? on the side.

The events of the trilogy can all be drawn back to Ziana Vaatzes and his flight from Mezentia, the Eternal Republic, a walled city of brilliant craftsmen that dominate the world without ever stepping foot beyond their own walls. To survive in the outside world, Vaatzes offers his skills to the Eremian people, who were recently shamed when they tried to attack Mezentia and were slaughtered by the Mezentine’s artillery. Faced with the exposure of their industrial secrets, the Mezentine government hires mercenaries from the old country to punish the Eremians and anyone else who dares try and break their economic stranglehold on the world.

Such an epic war could easily lead to your standard epic fantasy fair, complete with heroes leading brave armies, but the machinery that’s so central to the story handily slaughters that, waves of heroes dying at the duel hands of will-sapping economy and body-destroying industrial creations:

He'd been there when the volley struck the seventh lancers. First, a low whistling, like a flock of starlings; next, a black cloud resolving itself into a skyfull of tiny needles, hanging in the air for a heartbeat before swooping, following a trajectory that made no sense, that broke all the known rules of flight; then pitching, growing bigger so horribly fast (like the savage wild animals that chase you in dreams), then dropping like hailstones all around him; and the shambles, the noise, the suddenness of it all. So many extraordinary images, like a vast painting crammed with incredible detail: a man nailed to the ground by a bolt that hit him in the groin, drove straight through his horse and into the ground, fixing them both so firmly they couldn't even squirm; two men riveted together by the same bolt; a man hit by three bolts simultaneously, each one punched clean through his armor, and still incredibly alive; a great swathe of men and horses stamped in to the ground like a careless footstep on a flowerbed full of young seedlings. Just enough time for him to catch fleeting glimpses of these unbelievable sights, and then the next volley fell, to minutes of angle to the left, flattening another section of the line. He couldn't even see where the bolts were coming from, they didn't seem to rise from the surface of the earth, they just materialized or condensed in mid-air, like snow. (p. 62-63, Devices and Desires)

When it comes to industry, Parker is a master. It could be argued that she goes overboard in her descriptions of this or that technological process, and you probably will learn more than you ever wanted to know or are able to process about making pieces of ancient equipment that you didn’t previously know the name of, but the sheer inhuman power of siege weapons and economies are horrifically rendered here. They are greater than any one man, turning conflict from glorious struggles to battles of attrition and protracted, mutual declines broken up by periods of horrible annihilation like the one quoted above. The characters of Parker's world, and the reader, can't relate to destruction on such a scale (though we modern readers have long since eclipsed it), and such artillery can't be comprehended on its own terms, instead viewed as animals and isolated images, as a force of nature not unleashed by one man but rather sent down from the sky to slaughter them all, amoral.

The constructed machines are far from the only mechanical element of the series. Vaatzes’s machine analogy can be used to illuminate almost every aspect of the series, but what makes it truly interesting is that, though everything is precisely motivated and running on perfectly aligned tracks, there are wheels within wheels within wheels, and you can never tell where the true beginning of anything was.

In the end, it is love that motivates the various great and terrible leaders and men of the story. Their most human emotion deprived them of their free will, turned them away from their old paths, loyalties, and characters, and sent them off to change the world in ways that they never could have predicted. Their decisions, once made, cannot be retracted, and social constructions made for a purpose often soon turn unwieldy and threaten to crush their creator as surely as their creator’s enemies.

One of the most interesting characters is Duke Valens, the leader of Eremia’s ancestral foes, the Vadani. Vaatzes is the arch manipulator in the novels, but Valens is the one conscious of being manipulated, not by Vaatzes but by himself and his circumstances. In the first chapter of the book, we see Valens as he really is: an awkward boy, bored by matters of state, intimidated by hunting and its larger cousin war, and wholly unsuited to be a duke. When we next meet him, however, his father has passed away and the mantle of leadership has come to him – and he has forced himself to fit it.

Each of the three novels of the trilogy start with the same sentence: "The way to a man's heart[…]is proverbially through his stomach, but if you want to get into his brain, I recommend the eye socket." (p. 1). Each time, a central character is learning to fence and presented with the same problem: they must stab through the center of a ring hanging from a string. For Valens, the answer is to cheat. As he admits later, Valens does everything by cheating, by sidestepping the original problem and sidestepping the limitations of the man that the problem was presented to. Valens the man is useless and incompetent, but Valens the duke is a master hunter and strategist, an excellent diplomat, tireless, intelligent, and dedicated to his people.

The most elaborate, painstaking aspect of Valens-the-creation is his letters. He and Veatriz, wife to Duke Orsea of Eremia, have kept in communication with secret letters delivered by merchant couriers for years at the start of the story. In the letters, Valens communicates with quotations and elaborate phrases, and Veatriz falls in love with the man revealed there – a man with precious little in common with the boy that opened Devices and Desires.

The Ducas, Miel, is the opposite of Valens. The Ducas are a proud, noble family so bound up in tradition that their every move is dictated. Miel knows this, is aware of his utter lack of free will and inability to plot his own course, and yet he bows down to it, embraces it. Like Valens, Miel strives to dominate and excel at his position. Valens changed himself to fit his position, created a second identity for himself and always consciously turned to it when he had to make a decision. Miel, by contrast, simply changed himself. Valens toys with his image as a perfect duke. Punishing himself for his inner weakness, he has made himself a man endlessly fascinated with the trappings of power, with elaborate hunting trips and their like. At the same time, he probes the edges of what he's allowed – and often violates those edges – with his letters to Veatriz. Miel himself has no other desires beyond his position. When faced with a choice to either abandon their duty or lose everything that they love, Valens acted by instinct and, for a time, cast aside the restrictions that he placed upon himself. Miel, by contrast, has numerous moments throughout the series where he knowingly acts against his own interest, doing what the Ducas must do even if he would like nothing so much as to do the opposite. As he thinks in the second book:

You could fill a book – someone probably had – with the selflessly heroic deaths of the Ducas. Dying of thirst in the mountains, the Ducas gives the last mouthful of water to the rebel leader he's captured and is taking back to face justice; awestruck by the example, the rebel carries on to the city and meekly surrenders to his executioners. Fighting a duel to the death with the enemy captain, the Duacs gets an unfair advantage when the enemy slips and falls, to forbear to strike is to give the enemy a clear shot, which he's obligated to accept since he too is fighting for the lives of his people; the Ducas holds back and allows him self to be killed, since duty to an enemy overrides hid duty to his own kind. In such a book, there'd be pages of notes and commentaries at the end, explaining the complex nuances of the degrees of obligation – nuances which the Ducas understood and calculated in a second, needless to say. (p. 428, Evil for Evil)

By contrast, the Eremian duke, Orsea, is simplistic and earnest. He is a good man who always tries to do good to the best of his abilities – but his abilities are woefully inadequate compared to what he, as the leader of a nation, needs, and his best effort often falls horrendously short of what he would need to do to save his people. Orsea is sympathetic and occasionally painful to read about, though his self effacing perspective can grow tiresome on occasion.

The Engineer Trilogy's cast is conspicuous for its near total absence of female characters, a fact that (perhaps) plays into the speculations about Parker's gender. There are two prominent women in the Engineer Trilogy – Veatriz and Vaatzes's wife – but they are both completely defined by their relationship with the men around them. While on occasion formidable, there is never an indication that they have any true hidden depths of their own.

Parker’s world is as meticulously created as the rest of her vision. The different nations – the silver mining Vadani, the rudimentary Eremians, the sidelined Cure Doce, the far off old country, the arrogant Mezentines, the barbaric Cure Hardy – are all richly developed, and it's obvious that Parker put a great deal of thought into every aspect of their interaction, their trade routes and quirks intersecting with and influencing one another like the fine workings of an expensive watch. That being said, there's actually the feeling that everything is too neat. Every piece of the puzzle is so well integrated that they all feel essential, inevitable, making it hard for the reader to ever conceive of a different system, rendering a supposed history of huge wars bizarre and hard to picture. The Mezentine confidence in war feels fully justified, but it's difficult to shake the feeling that, for a people so dependent on exports, they're being a tad glib in their slaughtering of half of their potential markets.  In the final volume we do learn that there were other, long forgotten nations in the area, but it's too late for the knowledge to really impact our view of the world.

As I said earlier, the second volume, Evil for Evil, is where Parker really hits her stride. The Engineer Trilogy is shocking in just how much motion there is. The individual novels in the sequence really are world changing, and the picture that we end with is nothing like the one that we began with. Evil for Evil occasionally lags in pacing, but the characters are well established here, the plot gripping, and the stakes high. The novel's primary new thread is woven in somewhat clumsily – with not one but several dues ex machinas signifying its opening – but soon overcomes the stumble.

Evil for Evil also sees the introduction of the character Daurenja. Daurenja is, basically, your standard fantasy hero. He is brilliant, deadly, gifted at everything he attempts, and lucky enough to shoot up in the ranks like he was shot out of a cannon. Oh, and he's not a good guy (and wouldn't be even if Parker allowed such one dimensional concepts as 'good' and 'evil' into her work). Daurenja is a wrench in the works, a force of nature that will either bring Vaatzes's designs to head or shatter them utterly. This is the rare character in fiction that is a total enigma and yet somehow understandable, at once terrifying and witty, equal parts savior and executor.

The final volume, The Escapement, brings the final element of the narrative into play: the primitive Cure Hardy that are so numerous and warlike that even the Mezentines are scared of them. In fact, the Cure Hardy here become almost the center of the story, the ultimate change to all the players that ensures that, win or lose, the world will never be the same again.

In the first two volumes, both Duke Orsea and Duke Valens meet small numbers of the Cure Hardy and discover that a large number of their assumptions were completely off. When they finally step into the spotlight, everything seems poised for them to be as well thought out and fascinating as the other two races.

They're not.

The Cure Hardy, in fact, never step into the spotlight. They're the main motivator for just about every character in the third volume, and yet their actual presence is negligible; they're kept off screen and only briefly evoked in war councils made up of unnamed characters. The Cure Hardy are the only faction that we never get a perspective from, that we never even get a single sympathetic character from, and the omission renders them ultimately inconsequential in the reader's mind, regardless of their importance to the story. Without caring a whit what happens to them, the climax of the final volume, involving key questions with regards to the Cure Hardy's future, is – though outwardly satisfying – devoid of the moral complexity that it's obvious Parker was striving for.

Parker's prose throughout the trilogy is as precise and detailed as he engineers' plans. That is not, however, to imply that it is dry. Parker's writing is cynical, sarcastic, and at times hilarious to read:

He opened his eyes expecting to see the kingdom of Heaven, but instead it was a dirty, gray-haired man with a bug mustache, who frowned.

"Live one here," the man said. [Name] assumed the man wasn't talking to him. Still, it was reassuring to have an impartial opinion on the subject, even though the man's tone of voice suggested that it was largely an academic issue. (p. 24, Evil for Evil)

Or, later in the same book:

Which was, he reflected later, as he lay in the dark staring up, a bit like killing yourself to frame your enemy for murdering you; a sort of bleak satisfaction; looked at objectively, though, not terribly clever. (p. 544, Evil for Evil)

The Engineer Trilogy is an incredibly interesting work that's marred by several flaws. Still, this trilogy's highs are so powerful and well made that this is still essential reading for anyone interested in realistically constructed, morally complex, and well written epic fantasy.

[Note: Page numbers from Devices and Desires refer to the mass market, for the others, the trade editions.]


  1. This is an excellent review -- I think you capture the trilogy all but perfectly, right down to why the ending is unsatisfying.

    (I am surprised you refer to Parker as "she" -- do you know something I don't know? I personally try to avoid pronouns in this particular case.)

  2. Thank you very much for your kind words, ecbatan. As for the pronoun question, avoiding pronouns entirely when writing several thousand words would have been unnecessarily difficult. Without any certainty in either direction, I picked a pronoun and stuck with it. Hence, "she."

  3. Fair enough, to be sure!

    (I remember tying myself into knots, more or less, writing a review of Raphael Carter's THE FORTUNATE FALL, trying to avoid using a pronoun. Different reason, in that case.)