Engineer’s Trilogy by KJ Parker

March 16, 2009 at 11:52 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

In a medieval world, a man of low birth ends up changing the world through his intellect and ability to manipulate people, but are his motives just or self-serving?  This is a description of one of my favorites series, Dorothy Dunnet’s House of Niccolo.  By using only slightly tortured phrasing, I’ve written it so that it also applies to the Engineer’s Trilogy.  Does KJ Parker’s trilogy meet Dunnett’s standard?

Well, no.  It’s not that she’s not a good writer.  Especially in the first and third volumes I frequently paused to notice unusually well-written paragraphs, something I don’t do often when reading.  Dunnett is probably still a notch above as a writer, but really their styles are so different that comparisons are difficult.  Dunnett’s fiction (particularly the excellent Lymond books but also Niccolo) can be inaccessible due to the density of her prose and her far-ranging quotations and allusions.  Dunnett was also writing historical fiction, while Parker sets her book in a pretty standard magic-less fantasy world.

The unqiue feature of Parker’s world is the Mezentine Republic, an island of industrialization amidst what is otherwise a standard pre-indstrial world.  The Mezentines jealously guard the secrets of their technology to preserve their lucrative monopolies on the products of industry, but oddly they themselves do not allow technical innovation.  Their society reveres the “specifications” of how things are made as essentially scripture and with only a few exceptions does not attempt to improve them (holding that this is, in fact, impossible).  The plot gets under way when a factory foreman named Vaatzes commits a mortal sin: in the privacy of his home he makes a doll that is different from the Specification.  The state finds out, but he escapes before being executed.  Now on the run from his people with the secrets of industrialization at his disposal, Vaatzes’ only hope is to work for the enemies of the Mezentine state.

That’s a relatively interesting setting and a promising place to start a story (all of that is established in just the first pages of the first book).  Across the trilogy, the story careens all over the continent and involves the leaders of several other states as well as those in charge of the Mezentine Republic as well.  There are some deficiencies here: for example, the usual problem in fantasy books that the various “nations” all seem to number about 50,000 people or so.  Although this seems a little less than epic, it’s not a deal breaker…not until it is a major plot point that there are millions of nomads in the desert.  Uh, millions?  Parker seems quite knowledgable about many aspects of medieval life, so I can’t imagine why she feels that nomads would so vastly outnumber settled farmers.

But that’s not the big problem here.  No, the problem here is Vaatzes.  The central idea here is that Vaatzes is, despite his relatively humble position in the Republic, an extraordinary engineer.  His engineering abilities make him a formidable blacksmith, but as it turns out he is also an amazing manipulator of people.  Again and again, his political machinations are analogized in his thoughts to the workings of a machine.  Does this sound like any engineers you know?  Maybe not, but Vaatzes is extraordinary, after all.

Unfortunately, after three books Vaatzes intrigues turn out to have been all planned from the start.  The traditional way to handle elaborate plans is to have them go wrong and then show the character adapting.  Vaatzes does very little of this.  There’s improvisation now and then, but we are expected to believe that he planned out essentially everything that happens in three whole books in a day or two.  Meanwhile, there’s the not-that-shocking revelation that someone else was manipulating him.  Great.  My suspension of disbelief wasn’t just broken, it was ruined.  To go back to Dunnett for a moment, her manipulating characters Lymond and Nicholas are capable of things that ordinary smart people are not, but the reader accepts it because (a) these things still seem possible, although just barely and (b) everything about Lymond and Nicholas conspires to convince us they are geniuses.  Vaatzes is apparently a genius because he can set up an absurdly convoluted plot, but in terms of how he speaks, what he is interested in, and his personal life he seems like an ordinary drudge.

So much for Vaatzes.  Still, the Count of Monte Cristo isn’t at all plausible either, but it is still an enjoyable book, right?  Unfortunately Vaatzes is a hugely unlikeable character.  I was constantly rooting for him to fail, not because of some peevishness on my part but because I was supposed to, yet he never fails.  The story’s vast array of other characters are almost all portrayed as being so flawed and incompetent that I didn’t like them much either, although I still liked them more than Vaatzes so I was frustrated to see them get ground under the gears of Vaatzes’ plans.  The result: the story is depressing and not fun in the least.  There’s nothing wrong with a depressing book…if it is depressing in service to artistic truth.  But in this case, it’s depressing in service to a plot I continually rejected as wildly implausible.

I can’t recommend this trilogy at all, but I won’t give up on the author.  Perhaps with some other story to tell Parker will be worth reading.

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