A friend introduced me to KJ Parker. "Read this," she said. "You'll like it." My wariness towards fantasy trilogies is well known, but I eventually read The Colours in the Steel, The Belly of the Bow, and The Proof House, and when I read Shadow I got as far as the final chapter and took a train to London to make sure that I could move seamlessly from Pattern to Memory. Which is why I'm reviewing the entire Engineer trilogy now, without having reviewed the first two books in the sequence. Without, as it happens, having so much as opened a page of the first two, until the manuscript of the final book arrived in a brown paper envelope at work. The trilogy format of Parker's work is deceptive: it both does, and doesn't conform to recognisable fantasy trajectories. Yes, in almost all of the books there is at least one person who rises to power or moves towards the centre of the action; there is always big landscape; there are wars and many nameless people die. But the stories which form the plot are interlocked through future, present and past. Parker writes stories in which individuals become enmeshed in the machine, and in which economics is the god on which all the principals are sacrificed. The kind of individual heroism I associate with the majority of big world fantasies (even when subverted) is missing. So too is the sense of a moral universe in which justice, mercy, and punishment are handed out. Instead narratives of heroism are interrupted in favour of the more arbitrary, yet more devastating rules of the physical universe. If there is a caveat to be made in this otherwise laudatory review, it is that I am beginning to recognise a Parker "character"; they share a worldly pragmatism, what we might call the voice of hard-boiled fantasy. It is a voice I enjoy, one which notes the absurdity of the world and looks for a screwdriver, and in a trilogy called The Engineer perhaps it is appropriate that almost every smart character in the tale sounds like an engineer, but it is something that Parker might want to reconsider.
The first book of the trilogy, Devices and Desires (2005) begins when the engineer Ziani Vaatzes escapes from the city of the Perpetual Republic, having been condemned to death for an offence against Perfection. Vaatzes escapes and is picked up by the Duke of Eremia who has just fought an ill-advised and disastrous skirmish with the Perpetual Republic. Vaatzes offers to provide Orsea with the machineries of war, and Orsea—who will become notorious for taking sensible but wrong decisions—accepts, assuming that he is pulling Vaatzes into his conflicts. The truth is the absolute reverse of this. Vaatzes has plans of his own, and the Perpetual Republic has a Policy when it comes to renegades: destroy not only them, but any culture to whom they may have leaked the Republic's technological secrets. When Eremia falls, Orsea and his wife Vetris are rescued by Valens, Duke of the rival Vadani who live in a mountain fastness. Valens's actions—motivated by an illicit love for Orsea's wife—drag Valens into the war with the Republic. By the beginning of Evil for Evil (2006) the Vadani have been forced to abandon their city and have struck an alliance with the Aram Chat, one of the nomadic tribes which has crossed the desert in search of new lands. The deal is simple: help Valens destroy the Republic and the Aram Chat can have the lands of Eremia, and probably move in on the Vadani. Meanwhile, back in the Perpetual Republic there have been changes in leadership and after catastrophic encounters with the Vadani, the mercenaries from the Old Country have gone home. Suddenly the splendidly equipped Perpetual Republic needs to train its own people to use that splendid equipment. In the final book, The Escapement, the Vadani along with what's left of the Eremians and the Aram Chat begin the approach to the Perpetual Republic.
This straightforward tale of an imperium threatened by barbarians is driven by the machinations (sic) of one man, Ziani Vaatzes. Vaatzes burns with a sense of injustice. Vaatzes is a loyal man, a simple man. His life was dedicated to his wife, his child, and the theology of the Republic, and it is in the theology of the Republic that we first hear a note from one of the finely tuned strings on which Parker's melody is played. The Engineer Trilogy is a fantasy of epistemology and ontology, an argument about the way we know things and what we know and what it is proper to know. The first book opens with a very young Valens attempting to learn fencing. Valens hates the things he has to learn. He dislikes hunting, has no interest in music or poetry, and can't bear politics. Then his overbearing father dies and he finds that the girl he loved from afar, a hostage in his father's house, has been married off to a minor noble (Orsea) to provide the Duchy to which she is heir with an uncontentious ruler. Valens responds by throwing himself into all the things he once hated, being a good duke. In the process he becomes astonishingly learned not only in the arts of war, but also in the arts of economy. It is through Valens we first begin to understand the nature of the Republic's Imperialism.
The Perpetual Republic has gained a monopoly on almost all complex technology and industry: beginning as innocuous traders, the Republic's merchants use their formidable resources (both volume and quality) to undercut local production, turning the surrounding nations into clients, forever impoverished by the gap between the price of raw material and the price of finished goods. This in itself might not matter, because changes in the Perpetual Republic might well ensure the outsourcing of manufacturing (and hence of information) in order to constantly evade the falling rate of profit, but the Perpetual Republic is locked into a theology of Perfection. The crime for which Vaatzes was sentenced is the most heinous the Republic can imagine: Vaatzes attempted to improve on Perfection. In the Republic there is a set of specifications for everything: apprentices must know their trade's specifications (and no one else's) perfectly. There is a specification for everything, and each is graded in terms of the status of purpose and potential owner; and because these specifications represent perfection, to change specifications is to commit an abomination. Now, many of these specifications represent the fine tuning of tolerances, but many others control the application of an item and its adaptability, so that the perfection of the Perpetual Republic is a form of extreme speciation: there is no cross-fertilisation between professions, no philosophy of ideas. Only in the area of weapons manufacturing is there tolerance for innovation, and naturally this is where Vaatzes worked. The war threatens to change all of this. As the Perpetual Republic finds itself up against a renegade, it finds itself also up against the heresy of innovation, and it is therefore both ironic and curiously satisfying that even its most innovatory tactics will come from ancient books, and that the person imposing them (the ex-clerk Psellus) will use these tactics knowing that the trick to undermining them is in the next but one chapter along. Over and over again old knowledge proves flawed, but, despite the efforts of Psellus—perhaps the most original thinker in the novels—the Perpetual Republic is locked into an epistemology which cannot be broken without breaking the Republic itself.
Against the Republic is ranged a number of other epistemologies: there is that of Miel Ducas, cousin to Duke Orsea (and also in love with Orsea's wife, Veatriz, who he would have married had Veatriz not become the heir to the Duchy). Miel is the perfect would-have-been duke, understanding his world through a network of loyalties and obligations. As his world unravels under the machinations of Vaatzes, the fragility and deceptiveness of this way of knowing the people around him become clear. Humans are irrational, they continue their loyalties beyond the point where they make sense, or even make for safety. As Miel discovers, his knowledge of status obligations and the bonds of friendship become meaningless when the structures which supported them are dismantled. Furthermore, Miel discovers that he is like the Republic's specifications, rigid, unadaptable, fit for nothing once his niche disappears. Valens on the other hand, is adaptable. Hating equally everything he has had to learn, he is skilled at all of it. Valens is one of those people who cannot learn things in the abstract but can learn anything if the need is manifest. To woo Veatriz, Valens learns to be a letter writer: to write letters he learns the art of observation.
There are also the competing epistemologies of author and reader. At each stage of the three books "what we think we know" unravels. Causality fractures around the characters' mixed intentions as each takes decisions which they know to be improper or immoral or just risky. Vaatzes's constant rehearsal of his blueprint is a response to the relative unpredictability of the tools at his disposal—but as he revises, so too must the reader as Parker's characters take unexpected routes and reshape their goals. Furthermore, Parker extends a trick brought from other books: the intensity of gaze that Valens learns is deployed by Parker both to reveal and to conceal his world. Whereas in earlier novels there was a congruity in the gaze of Parker's characters, here each character focuses utterly intently on one aspect of the world, and constructs his or her own understanding of the situation. Parker channels the reader through these gazes so that our own comprehension is both intense yet fractal so that the epiphanic moment is shocking in its anti-climactic resolution of focus.
In The Engineer Trilogy, we get to see the economic bones and the mercantile gristle of the world; after the first novel I went to sleep and dreamt of building siege engines. We are led in a fascinating trajectory out and away from civilisation and the story of the world into a tightening spiral of narrative of war and conquest as Vaatzes draws ever closer to the walls of the Republic; a spiral danced similarly by Psellus as he investigates the case against Vaatzes, and is drawn into the intellectual archaeology of the Republic itself. Prey circles predator, until in the closing chapters of the tale it becomes hard to distinguish which is which.
Farah Mendlesohn is President of the International Assocation of the Fantastic in the Arts, and author of the forthcoming Rhetorics of Fantasy (Wesleyan University Press, 2008).
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