Author: KJ Parker
407 pages • £12.99
The underlying question here remains the same as it was in the first two volumes of this series: to what lengths will people go for the sake of love? It may sound like a flimsy premise for a convoluted fantasy tale, but at the time of writing The Escapement nestles comfortably in the top 20 of Amazon’s Hot New Releases for SF and fantasy. Clearly, the pseudonymous KJ Parker is doing something right...
But what? Perhaps the easiest way to explain to anyone who hasn’t already been captured by the first two volumes in the Engineer Trilogy, Devices and Desires and Evil for Evil, is to imagine a beautifully intricate model – a train set or a dolls’ house. Parker’s work has the same careful attention to detail; the same sense of something carefully, even lovingly constructed.
That’s actually quite a spooky idea. Thankfully, reading the novels is an altogether less scary experience. Instead, on one level at least, it’s a way of disappearing into a fascinating, richly-realised fantasy world. And, because no magic was used in the making of this trilogy, it’s even a
guilty pleasure-free zone for those readers who more naturally drift towards hard SF.
Instead, this is fantasy that, as well as dramatising the clash between key characters, also focuses on the tensions between different kinds of civilisations. In the industrialised corner lies the Republic of Mezentina, a rigidly organised city state where unauthorised innovation is regarded as an abomination. In the mountains, ready to attack the Republic, lie the forces of Duke Valens, leader of the essentially medieval Vadani. Finally there are the Cure Hardy, Valens’s nomadic, desert-living allies who are (ominously for all their neighbours) in search of further living space.
How will the interplay between these three peoples play out as the siege of the Republic begins? That depends largely on one man, the engineer Ziani Vaatzes. It’s Vaatzes who has, through his machinations, contrived the war. For him, the death of thousands is nothing compared to the chance to get back to his wife and child, who still reside in a city that made him outcast. Yet he’s not entirely brutal. In secret contact with Secretary Psellus, leader of the Republic, he wants to minimise losses, to find a new, peaceful status quo.
The same can’t be said of his assistant, the monstrous Daurenja. Imagine a man with the restless, driven genius of Leonardo da Vinci and no scruples whatsoever to get close to his character. Can Vaatzes control Daurenja sufficiently to prevent events spiralling out of his control?
It’s fascinating to find out, but this remains a novel with faults that seem to have become magnified as the series has progressed. In particular, too often Parker’s characters are world-weary, happy to excuse their choices because, really, they had no choice but to do as they did. If a nobleman-turned-highwayman-murderer and war leaders talk in the same fatalistic terms, how do you separate them?
Set against that, there are some fine pieces of writing here. In particular, one section of the book deals with a raw young recruit being sent on what he has yet to realise is a dangerous fool’s errand. Here, Parker explores the true cost of war: the bloody, muddy chaos that engulfs ordinary folk while generals sit at a safe distance.
More such passages wouldn’t have gone amiss. Nevertheless, taken as a whole the Engineer Trilogy remains one of the finest fantasy trilogies of recent years, a work as far removed from unimaginative sword ’n’ sorcery as it’s possible to go without alienating a certain subset of teenagers (y’know, the ones who paint their bedrooms purple).