After very positive experiences with a number of recent books by K.J. Parker, I decided to dive into the far back year of 2006 and read one of his larger, better known series – specifically his Engineer Trilogy. The first book in the set is Devices and Desires, and Parker describes the series as (and I am paraphrasing here) “a love story in which tens of thousands die. A story about a very ordinary man who’s forced, through no real fault of his own, to do extraordinary things in order to achieve a very simple, everyday objective. And he does them through the science of engineering.” I was intrigued, as I studied engineering and physics in college, and my previous track record with Parker buoyed up my hopes that this would be a knock out of the park hit for all kinds of readers. What I found instead is a very strange, very divisive, and very dense book that feels fairly divorced from the recent Parker novels I have read. I strongly suspect that a small number of people will consider this one of their top books ever, but the vast majority of readers are going to feel like they just read an Ikea manual.
The plot of Devices and Desires is such: In Parker’s world there is a technologically advanced city known as Mezentia. This Republic could probably conquer the world with their advanced weaponry and tech, but their bloated bureaucracy grinds all progress and planning to a halt. They have a set of strict guidelines for their citizens when it comes to making anything, and to alter this technology is not only considered taboo, but can result in exile or even death. Ziani Vaatzes, our protagonist, finds himself sentenced to death for breaking this rule and altering a piece of machinery to improve its efficacy – because he is a genius. He is forced to use his considerable brilliance to flee Mezentia to neighboring countries. There, he begins a one-man campaign of terror to burn down the known world and its rules in order to be reunited with his beloved family.
Let’s take a quick look at what I liked about the book. The plot, in theory, is interesting. The book is mostly about Ziani going to other rival nations of Mezentia and giving them critical pieces of technology in order to bring them up to fighting speed and destabilize his home country. This tech isn’t just weapons; it includes everything from agriculture tech to joints for machinery. I enjoy how the prime drive of our protagonist is reuniting with his family, it was a nice change of pace. I like the humor in the book. The sections in Mezentia, in particular, are fun as we get to see this technologically advanced powerhouse get flattened by tiny petty people just being counterproductive cogs in the giant machine. I think that the themes are extremely on point. The book does a powerful job exploring the ideas like manufacturing, how things work, how important engineering is in warfare, and more. Parker definitely did a tremendous job exploring the ideas he set out to investigate.
Unfortunately, that is roughly where my praise stops and my complaints begin. First, while the themes are on point, they are also extremely boring. The book has the details and pacing of a 300-page manual in a language you don’t speak. This adherence to themes is a consistent aspect in Parker’s writing. When he commits to a theme, he commits to a theme. But the book is simply too large (and there are two more after Devices and Desires) to spend this much time explaining at a glacial pace how the vent for a blacksmith shop works. I thought I cared before I read this book…turns out I don’t. It was really fun for 150 pages, mildly entertaining for the next 150, and then for the next 300 I wanted to put my head in a smelter.
Then we have the characters. I use ‘characters’ liberally here because despite there being about 20 POVs, I only really saw two characters: Ziani and everyone else. I really cannot remember the name of any other character other than Ziani, and I only read this book 2 months ago. The personalities of everyone other than Ziani just run together depending on which country they are from. They all think and feel the same way and it all blends into this morass of sameness. Then we have Ziani, who is basically just a monster. His reaction to being separated from his family is to reduce the standing population of the world by 50% – instead of inventing a way to reunite with his family without ceaseless slaughter. He is generally unpleasant to be around, grating against every single character (and me the reader) he talks to. I think I was supposed to resonate with him as a man vs. the world, but instead, I found myself hoping he would get over himself and recoil at the horrors he was unleashing (I normally would say ‘realized the horrors he is unleashing’, but this little shit is very much aware what he’s doing). Finally, Ziani is narrated like he’s some sort of genius playing 4D chess with the world, and instead of making him feel cool, it is the nail in the coffin, making him just completely intolerable to be around. I hope book two starts with him falling into a woodchipper and is replaced with his more empathetic brother, Yiani, who always had the hots for Ziani’s wife.
Although I had issues with it, Devices and Desires certainly is a unique book – for better and worse. If you think you really like learning the technical details of a world down to the nuts and the bolts and have a hard-on for manufacturing you might enjoy this book. Otherwise, I do not recommend you check out Devices and Desires – Parker has written much more enjoyable books that don’t require nearly the time investment.
Rating: Devices and Desires – 4.5/10