The Escapement by K J Parker
|The Escapement by K J Parker|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: In the third and final instalment of the Engineer trilogy, the Engineer himself (Viania Vaatzes) approaches the Mezentian capital...but he's now at war and even with the gathered allies behind him a full frontal assault or a long siege lie ahead before he can finally go home. Rulers both skilled and inept, Engineers totally skilled, soldiers totally inept (well they're not really soldiers)...and all with their own motivations...and the final conflict awaits.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 416||Date: December 2007|
The way to a man's heart, the instructor said, is proverbially through his stomach, but if you want to get into his brain, I recommend the eye socket. Advice much taken by Duke Valens... but on this occasion, the Instructor has Secretary Psellus to deal with. Psellus doesn't think he'll ever be able to do it.
The Instructor nodded, and no doubt sighed deeply if somewhat inaudibly. Psellus was probably right. But then Psellus is a born Clerk. He is born to move paper, understand people's motivations and how they go about covering them up, know how the channels of communication work - but not necessarily why. He might well have signed the order that started the war - but only in his official capacity. There was nothing personal about it. He had no choice.
Now, it would seem, two books on, he has equally little choice about ruling the Perpetual Republic - as clearly ill-suited to the task as he is.
In some ways, however, running the Republic and winning a war are among the least of his problems. He takes the direct approach with military and diplomatic people, which generally involves saying: I haven't a clue what I'm doing here, help me out - to the surprising effect that they gather he knows exactly what he's doing and help him out, just in case they're right.
The problem that continues to vex him more is the Engineer Vaatzes. Why? Why did Vaatzes start all this? The war that has cost thousands of lives, has set the Eremians, the Perpetual Republic of Mezentia and the Vadani against each other in a quicksand of shifting personal and official alliances. The war has now brought an alliance of the Eremians and Vadani - together with (unbelievably) the savages from across the desert: the Aram Chantat - to the very doorstep of Mezentia's capital city with the threat of either a direct assault or a long siege, neither of which can be rebuffed.
It started two volumes back, with the making of a mechanical doll for Ziani Vaatzes daughter... a doll which did not conform to Specification... a treasonable offence, punishable by death. His betrayal to The Compliance and subsequent escape set in train the sequence of events - the "system" if you will - that led inescapably to this final confrontation.
Of course from Vaatzes' personal point of view, he had no choice - about any of it: the making of the doll, the escape, the war...
In particular he had no choice about employing the stranger Daurenja - who knows too many things, and uses too many people, to be remotely trustworthy. Who knows whether Daurenja ever had a choice - he thinks not.
Duke Valens of the Vadani - had choices. Miel Ducas of the Eremians had choices. Though both would argue otherwise. They were in love you see. Not with each other - more prosaically, with a woman. And love limits your choices, just as much as war or duty.
He had no choice is the catchphrase of this the final instalment of the Engineer trilogy - it is used to stunning effect. Often enough to hammer home the absurdity of the assertion, but not so frequently as to be overly intrusive and become absurd in its own right.
From the lowliest soldier to the highest officer or politician - every action is determined by those which preceded it.
Parker achieves the improbable result of allowing you to believe this. The Engineer trilogy is named not just for its central character (Vaatzes) but for the external engineer, which in other constructs would be the intelligent designer. The descriptions of war machines and their construction in intricate detail, is mirrored in his descriptions of political systems, warfare itself, and personal relationships, all of which conform to engineered systems, in which every pieces slots into the space designed for it, turns the next cog and sets in motion the predicted series of events... all is designed, and outcomes are inevitable.
Parker's trick in making this plausible is his counterbalance of character: it is difficult not to sympathise with Ducas, Vadani, Vaatzes, Psellus and many of the others. Only the driven Daurenja raises direct antipathy - but even he is not without redeeming features. Feeling as we do for these people, we might fall more easily into the trap of believing as they do that they have no choice, but strangely it is our understanding of their motivations that has us railing at them: no, don't do it - don't you see... There are always other choices.
When I reviewed Evil for Evil (the second Engineer book), I was conscious of the shortcoming of not having read Devices and Desires(the first instalment) and on balance I hold to that view. If you haven't read either of the earlier novels - please do not start with this one. If the second & third parts are anything to go by - then the whole deserves to be read as a whole.
It is not a series of books, that simply happen to be focussed on the same characters - it is a single work, a long tale, the telling of which has to be broken down into manageable chunks. (If you'll forgive the 'technical' expression.)
Should you read it? (Them)
Any fan of fantasy is missing out on a real treat if they by-pass what I suspect will become a classic of the genre.
As an arts student, I have to assume that the engineering references are accurate to the thousandths in which they are described and must also confess that some of these passages left me floundering, until the 'don't need to know' circuit kicked in and allowed me to follow what was being made and the implications of the response to who was making it, and how, and where the analogies lay and the flaws... without having to actually understand the mechanics of the thing.
At the same time, the series wouldn't be what it is without that level of detail. It is part of the point. Perhaps, the fact that most of us won't follow it, is also part of the point.
But don't make the mistake of thinking that this attention to detail is a blinding-with-science trick to hide an inability to write. Parker's way with words can be as beautiful as it is technical. The description of the forging of the secret weapon is awesome on a purely literary level...blacksmithing as a creative art - not just in the result - but in the love and care and passionate, emotional, involvement in the manipulation of metals. Stunning.
Finally, of course - beyond character study and politics and love and war and beauty and death - there must eventually come humour.
Not just eventually - but threaded throughout. Buried in the absurdity of humanity... and the choices we make, the manipulations we employ... there is much to make you smile. There are few jokes; scarcely a single laugh out loud moment. By this stage of the story we are into the dark territory of outright war... the women have largely taken a back seat... and we are dealing with professional liars: military men, politicians, chancers... all of whom have a large measure of honour, and too many reasons to compromise it. But there is a great deal to make you smile... albeit with the wry recognition of how truly observed it all is. This is how the world works. Any world.
With such intricate plots as these, it is easy to feel short-changed by endings - but not this time. The certain inevitability of the outcome, is marred only slightly by the final twists, some of which might be considered the twisting-back-into-true of distorted components and so not a flaw at all.
All of the loose ends are tied up - but in true-to-life fashion not neatly spliced.
Whether you will be happy with the outcome, might depend upon whose side you finally supported. Not everyone survives - and of those that do, not all achieve their heart's desire. The war ends the way wars seem to these days. Winners and losers. Or maybe just losers.
My recommendation on the earlier volume was in the light of coming in part-way through the story and so having no beginning and no end. I still cannot speak for the beginning, but on the basis of the end, and perchance reassessing the middle in its light... I heartily endorse the whole series (and am off to look up the other two Parker trilogies that I seem to have missed).
Not the easiest of fantasy reads - but worth the effort.
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