Parker (the Scavenger trilogy) raises the bar for realistic fantasy war craft with this series opener. When the engineering guild sentences Ziani Vaatzes to death for improving on its supposedly perfect specifications for mechanical toys, he manages to escape Mezentia and throws in his lot with its recently defeated enemy, city-state Eremia. In exile, Vaatzes sets up shop making weapons, but his real goal is to create a new kind of engine-one made of human components, designed to reunite him with his family. He painstakingly executes a slow-moving master plan involving love, betrayal and secrets among the two countries' leaders. The tragic aftermath of the climactic battle forces a rereading of all that went before. It takes some hard slogging to get through assiduously researched technical descriptions of everything from dressing a duke to hunting a boar, and a few too many coincidences and expository speeches mar Parker's otherwise exquisite feat of literary engineering. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Devices and Desires (Engineer Trilogy Series #1)by K. J. Parker
When an engineer is sentenced to death for a petty transgression of guild law, he flees the city, leaving behind his wife and daughter. Forced into exile, he seeks a terrible vengeance -- one that will leave a trail of death and destruction in its wake. But he will not be able to achieve this by himself. He must draw up his plans using the blood of… See more details below
When an engineer is sentenced to death for a petty transgression of guild law, he flees the city, leaving behind his wife and daughter. Forced into exile, he seeks a terrible vengeance -- one that will leave a trail of death and destruction in its wake. But he will not be able to achieve this by himself. He must draw up his plans using the blood of others...In a compelling tale of intrigue and injustice, K. J. Parker's embittered hero takes up arms against his enemies, using the only weapons he has left to him: his ingenuity and his passion -- his devices and desires."A richly textured and emotionally complex fantasy...Highly recommended." --- Library Journal (Starred Review) "When so many fantasy sagas are tired, warmed-over affairs, a writer like K.J. Parker is more of a hurricane than a breath of fresh air." --- Dreamwatch
Read an ExcerptDevices and Desires
By K. J. Parker Orbit Copyright © 2005 K. J. Parker
All right reserved.
Chapter One "The quickest way to a man's heart," said the instructor, "is proverbially through his stomach. But if you want to get into his brain, I recommend the eye-socket."
Like a whip cracking, he uncurled his languid slouch into the taut, straight lines of the lunge. His forearm launched from the elbow like an arrow as his front leg plunged forward, and the point of the long, slim sword darted, neat as a component in a machine, through the exact center of the finger-ring that dangled from a cord tied to the beam.
It was typical of Valens' father that he insisted on his son learning the new fencing; the stock, the tuck, the small-sword and the rapier. It was elegant, refined, difficult, endlessly time-consuming and, of course, useless. A brigandine or even a thick winter coat would turn one of those exquisite points; if you wanted to have any chance of doing useful work, you had to aim for the holes in the face, targets no bigger than an eight-mark coin. Against a farm worker with a hedging tool, you stood no chance whatsoever. But, for ten years, Valens had flounced and stretched up and down a chalk line in a drafty shed that hadn't been cleaned out since it was still a stable. When he could hit the apple, the instructor had hung up a plum, and then a damson. Now he could get the damson nine times out of ten, and so the ring had taken its place. Once he'd mastered that, he wondered what he'd be faced with next. The eye of a darning-needle, probably.
"Better," the instructor said, as the point of Valens' sword nicked the ring's edge, making it tinkle like a cow-bell. "Again."
It was typical of Valens that he suffered through his weekly lesson, face frozen and murder in his heart, always striving to do better even though he knew the whole thing was an exercise in fatuity. Fencing was last lesson but one on a Monday; on Wednesday evening, when he actually had an hour free, he paid one of the guardsmen four marks an hour to teach him basic sword and shield, and another two marks to keep the secret from his father. He was actually quite good at proper fencing, or so the guardsman said; but the tuck had no cutting edge, only a point, so he couldn't slice the grin off the instructor's face with a smart backhand wrap, as he longed to do. Instead, he was tethered to this stupid chalk line, like a grazing goat.
"That'll do," the instructor said, two dozen lunges later. "For next week, I want you to practice the hanging guard and the volte."
Valens dipped his head in a perfunctory nod; the instructor scooped up his armful of swords, unhooked his ring and left the room. It was still raining outside, and he had a quarter of an hour before he had to present himself in the west tower for lute and rebec. Awkwardly - it was too small for him at the best of times, and now his fingers were hot and swollen - he eased the ring off his right index finger and cast around for a bit of string.
Usually, he did much better when the instructor wasn't there, when he was on his own. That was fatuous too, since the whole idea of a sword-fight is that there's someone to fight with. Today, though, he was worse solo than he'd been during the lesson. He lunged again, missed, hit the string, which wrapped itself insultingly round the sword-point. Maybe it was simply too difficult for him.
That thought didn't sit comfortably, so he came at the problem from a different angle. Obviously, he told himself, the reason I can't do it is because it's not difficult enough.
Having freed his sword, he stepped back to a length; then he leaned forward just a little and tapped the ring on its edge, setting it swinging. Then he lunged again.
Six times out of six; enough to prove his point. When the ring swung backward and forward, he didn't just have a hole to aim at, he had a line. If he judged the forward allowance right, it was just a simple matter of pointing with the sword as though it was a finger. He steadied the ring until it stopped swinging, stepped back, lunged again and missed. Maybe I should have been a cat, he thought. Cats only lash out at moving objects; if it's still, they can't see it.
He cut the ring off the cord with his small knife and jammed it back on his finger, trapping a little fold of skin. Rebec next; time to stop being a warrior and become an artist. When he was Duke, of course, the finest musicians in the world would bribe his chamberlains for a chance to play while he chatted to his guests or read the day's intelligence reports, ignoring them completely. The son of a powerful, uneducated man has a hard time of it, shouldering the burden of all the advantages his father managed so well without.
An hour of the rebec left his fingertips numb and raw; and then it was time for dinner. That brought back into sharp focus the question he'd been dodging and parrying all day; would she still be there, or had his father sent her back home? If she'd left already - if, while he'd been scanning hexameters and hendecasyllables, stabbing at dangling jewelry and picking at wire, she'd packed up her bags and walked out of his life, possibly forever - at least he wouldn't have to sit all night at the wrong end of the table, straining to catch a word or two of what she said to someone else. If she was still here. . . . He cast up his mental accounts, trying to figure out if he was owed a miracle. On balance, he decided, probably not. According to the holy friars, it took three hundred hours of prayer or five hundred of good works to buy a miracle, and he was at least sixty short on either count. All he could afford out of his accrued merit was a revelatory vision of the Divinity, and he wasn't too bothered about that.
If she was still here.
On the off chance, he went back to his room, pulled off his sweaty, dusty shirt and winnowed through his clothes-chest for a replacement. The black, with silver threads and two gold buttons at the neck, made him look like a jackdaw, so he went for the red, with last year's sleeves (but, duke's son or not, he lived in the mountains; if it came in from outside, it came slowly, on a mule), simply because it was relatively clean and free of holes. Shoes; his father chose his shoes for him, and the fashion was still for poulaines, with their ridiculously long pointy toes. He promised himself that she wouldn't be able to see his feet under the table (besides, she wouldn't still be here), and pulled out his good mantle from the bottom of the chest. It was only civet, but it helped mask the disgraceful length of his neck. A glance in the mirror made him wince, but it was the best he could do.
Sixty hours, he told himself; sixty rotten hours I could've made up easily, if only I'd known.
Protocol demanded that he sit on his father's left at dinner. Tonight, the important guest was someone he didn't know, although the man's brown skin and high cheekbones made it easy enough to guess where he was from. An ambassador from Mezentia; no wonder his father was preoccupied, waving his hands and smiling (two generations of courtiers had come to harm trying to point out to the Duke that his smile was infinitely more terrifying than his frown), while the little bald brown man nodded politely and picked at his dinner like a starling. One quick look gave Valens all the information he needed about what was going on there. On his own left, the Chancellor was discussing climbing roses with the controller of the mines. So that was all right; he was free to look round without having to talk to anybody.
She was still here. There was a tiny prickle of guilt mixed in with his relief. She was, after all, a hostage. If she hadn't been sent home, it meant that there'd been some last-minute hitch in the treaty negotiations, and the war between the two dukedoms, two centuries old, was still clinging on to life by a thread. Sooner or later, though, the treaty would be signed: peace would end the fighting and the desperate waste of lives and money, heal the country's wounds and bring the conscript farmers and miners back home; peace would take her away from him before he'd even had a chance to talk to her alone. For now, though, the war was still here and so was she.
(A small diplomatic incident, maybe; if he could contrive it that their ambassador bumped into him on the stairs and knocked him down a flight or two. Would an act of clumsiness toward the heir apparent be enough to disrupt the negotiations for a week or ten days? On the other hand, if he fell awkwardly and broke his neck, might that not constitute an act of war, leading to summary execution of the hostages? And he'd be dead too, of course, for what that was worth.)
Something massive stirred on his right; his father was standing up to say something, and everybody had stopped talking. There was a chance it might be important (Father loved to annoy his advisers by making vital announcements out of the blue at dinner), so Valens tucked in his elbows, looked straight ahead and listened.
But it wasn't anything. The little bald man from Mezentia turned out to be someone terribly important, grand secretary of the Foundrymen's and Machinists' Guild (in Father's court, secretaries were fast-moving, worried-looking men who could write; but apparently they ruled Mezentia, and therefore, by implication, the world), and he was here as an observer to the treaty negotiations, and this was extremely good. Furthermore, as a token of the Republic's respect and esteem, he'd brought an example of cutting-edge Mezentine technology, which they would all have the privilege of seeing demonstrated after dinner.
Distracted as he was by the distant view of the top of her head, Valens couldn't help being slightly curious about that. Everyday Mezentine technology was so all-pervasive you could scarcely turn round in the castle without knocking some of it over. Every last cup and dish, from the best service reserved for state occasions down to the pewter they ate off when nobody was looking, had come from the Republic's rolling mills; every candle stood in a Mezentine brass candlestick, its light doubled by a Mezentine mirror hanging from a Mezentine nail. But extra-special cuttingedge didn't make it up the mountain passes very often, which meant they had to make do with rumors; the awestruck whispers of traders and commercial travelers, the panicky reports of military intelligence, and the occasional gross slander from a competitor, far from home and desperate. If the little bald man had brought a miracle with him (the ten-thousand-mark kind, rather than the three-hundred-hour variety), Valens reckoned he could spare a little attention for it, though his heart might be broken beyond repair by even the masters of the Solderers' and Braziers' Guild.
The miracle came in a plain wooden crate. It was no more than six feet long by three wide, but it took a man at each corner to move it - a heavy miracle, then. Two Mezentines with grave faces and crowbars prised the crate open; out came a lot of straw, and some curly cedar shavings, and then something which Valens assumed was a suit of armor. It was man-high, man-shaped and shiny, and the four attendants lifted it up and set it down on some kind of stand. Fine, Valens thought. Father'll be happy, he likes armor. But then the attendants did something odd. One of them reached into the bottom of the crate and fished out a steel tube with a ring through one end; a key, but much larger than anything of the kind Valens had seen before. It fitted into a slot in the back of the armor; some kind of specially secure, sword-proof fastening? Apparently not; one of the attendants began turning it over and over again, and each turn produced a clicking sound, like the skittering of mice's feet on a thin ceiling. Meanwhile, two more crates had come in. One of them held nothing more than an ordinary blacksmith's anvil - polished, true, like a silver chalice, but otherwise no big deal. The other was full of tools; hammers, tongs, cold chisels, swages, boring stuff. The anvil came to rest at the suit of armor's feet, and one of the Mezentines prised open the suit's steel fingers and closed them around the stem of a three-pound hammer.
"The operation of the machine ..." Valens looked round to see who was talking. It was the short, bald man, the grand secretary. He had a low, rich voice with a fairly mild accent. "The operation of the machine is quite straightforward. A powerful spiral spring, similar to those used in clockwork, is put under tension by winding with a key. Once released, it bears on a flywheel, causing it to spin. A gear train and a series of cams and connecting rods transmits this motion to the machine's main spindle, from which belt-driven takeoffs power the arms. Further cams and trips effect the reciprocating movement, simulating the work of the human arm."
Whatever that was supposed to mean. It didn't look like anybody else understood it either, to judge from the rows of perfectly blank faces around the tables. But then the key-turner stopped turning, pulled out his key and pushed something; and the suit of armor's arm lifted to head height, stopped and fell, and the hammer in its hand rang on the anvil like a silver bell.
Not armor after all; Valens could feel his father's disappointment through the boards of the table. Of course Valens knew what it was, though he'd never seen anything like it. He'd read about it in some book; the citizens of the Perpetual Republic had a childish love of mechanical toys, metal gadgets that did things almost but not quite as well as people could. It was a typically Mezentine touch to send a mechanical blacksmith. Here is a machine, they were saying, that could make another machine just like itself, the way you ordinary humans breed children. Well; it was their proud boast that they had a machine for everything. Mechanizing reproduction, though, was surely cutting off their noses to spite their collective face.
The hammer rang twelve times, then stopped. Figures, Valens thought. You get a dozen hits at a bit of hot metal before it cools down and needs to go back in the fire. While you're waiting for it to heat up again, you've got time to wind up your mechanical slave. Query whether turning the key is harder work than swinging the hammer yourself would be. In any event, it's just a trip-hammer thinly disguised as a man. Now then; a man convincingly disguised as a trip-hammer, that'd be worth walking a mile to see.
Stunned silence for a moment or so, followed by loud, nervous applause. The little grand secretary stood up, smiled vaguely and sat down again; that concluded the demonstration.
Ten minutes after he got up from the table, Valens couldn't remember what he'd just eaten, or the name of the trade attach? he'd just been introduced to, or the date; as for the explanation of how the heavy miracle worked, it had vanished from his mind completely. That was unfortunate.
"I was wondering," she repeated. "Did you understand what that man said, about how the metal blacksmith worked? I'm afraid I didn't catch any of it, and my father's sure to ask me when I get home."
So she was going home, then. The irony; at last he was talking to her, and tomorrow she was going away. Further irony; it had been his father himself who'd brought them together; Valens, come over here and talk to the Countess Sirupati. Father had been towering over her, the way the castle loomed over the village below, all turrets and battlements, and he'd been smiling, which accounted for the look of terror in her eyes. Valens had wanted to reassure her; it's all right, he hasn't actually eaten anybody for weeks. Instead, he'd stood and gawped, and then he'd looked down at his shoes (poulaines, with the ridiculous pointy toes). And then she'd asked him about the mechanical blacksmith.
He pulled himself together, like a boy trying to draw his father's bow. "I'm not really the right person to ask," he said. "I don't know a lot about machines and stuff."
Her expression didn't change, except that it glazed slightly. Of course she didn't give a damn about how the stupid machine worked; she was making conversation. "I think," he went on, "that there's a sort of wheel thing in its chest going round and round, and it's linked to cogs and gears and what have you. Oh, and there's cams, to turn the round and round into up and down."
She blinked at him. "What's a cam?" she asked.
"Ah." What indeed? "Well, it's sort of ..." Three hours a week with a specially imported Doctor of Rhetoric, from whom he was supposed to learn how to express himself with clarity, precision and grace. "It's sort of like this," he went on, miming with his hands. "The wheel goes round, you see, and on the edge of the wheel there's like a bit sticking out. Each time it goes round, it kind of bashes on a sort of lever arrangement, like a see-saw; and the lever thing pivots, like it goes down at the bashed end and up at the other end - that's how the arm lifts - and when it's done that, it drops down again under its own weight, nicely in time for the sticky-out bit on the wheel to bash it again. And so on."
"I see," she said. "Yes, I think I understand it now."
"No," she said. "But thank you for trying."
He frowned. "Well, it was probably the worst explanation of anything I've ever heard in my life."
Excerpted from Devices and Desires by K. J. Parker Copyright © 2005 by K. J. Parker. Excerpted by permission.
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