Devices, Desires, Failed Feudalism, and Fun Reading

Recently, K.J. Parker has come clean of his pseudonym, and certainly it is no great scandal or surprise, as he, himself, predicted. A long and prestigious career in genre only made the pseudonym more meaningful than it had any right to be. A name is just a name. Most of us will never meet the authors whose books we put in our heads. I have already forgotten the true identity of K. J. Parker, and I would have to look it up. The signifier of a name is no more meaningful than the signifier of a pseudonym.

Reading Devices and Desires, the first book of a successful trilogy that made K. J. Parker’s career, I was struck with the meticulous machinery of the plot and characters. The brilliant, nearly inhuman engineer of the trilogy’s title that generates the momentum of action in the plot performs his role with a machine-like precision. Duke Orsenna, as well, something of a pathetic character, also performs his role with a machine-like grace, falling through the paces of his assigned role in the plot as precise and clean as a piston. The modus operandi of the world are war machines that only one nation ever builds, and they build them better than anyone else. Specifically, the plot hinges on “Scorpions” that function like oversized crossbows. The term we would use in our world is Ballista.

The world doesn’t really work as anything but an artifice. For example, the feudalistic trappings fail to include any number of women, who were a critical component of the patriarchy: The noble lord’s first and second duty involved an heir and a spare. There is only one woman in the book engaged in any meaningful action. The wife of the engineer is a mulligan, at best, and the daughter that is precious to him is as much a doll as the doll the engineer constructs to see her. The castle that is eventually besieged is, in fact, suffering from a flaw so glaring and obvious it does not quite work that the military tacticians of the neighboring kingdom never thought to exploit it, nor did any military tactician in the castle, itself, consider their own defenses with any length of time. The economics of the world are wholly irrational, as well. It is simply unclear how people in the Engineering city eat, go to work, go home, and live in their industrial system. After so many decades spent at war, it boggles reason that a timid Duke like Orsenna would be convinced to make war upon the most terrifying nation in the world without any meaningful direct provocation. The signifiers of feudalism are placed over the top of the world, and the signifiers of realism, but it is never quite a clean fit, and one is left peering at the edges, curious to make sense of the missing humans, there.

That said, it is wise to see past these criticisms as nothing more than a evidence of artifice on an entertaining and artful path. The book is a very enjoyable wind-up box fabricated upon the unreality of the machine of genre, that coils and coils and coils and bursts much like the machines of the engineering guild. The signifiers of genre appear in a new and refreshing way, though they are pushed to the edge of plausability, carrying with them the meticulous details of hunting, of seige weaponry, of early material production of seige technology. Hunting, in particular, for a non-hunter like myself, is a subject that was as mysterious to me as it was important to nobility in the feudal era. Reading the meticulously researched material with the more interesting characters in action was an informative way to spend an afternoon in pleasure reading. The prose teeters on the edge of greatness often enough that it is also a pleasurable read, line by line. One must simply allow the rules that constrain the text as part of a fabricated machine, a shadow play in a clockwork box that is never meant to be construed as truly realistic even as it gauzes all the research of realism over the text. The characters that are of great interest inside this machine, the Duke’s right-hand man that is betrayed, the cousin so fond of hunting who becomes an unstoppable force of death, and the mercurial Duchess, who attempts friendship with the ruler of the enemy and does not seem to care for her people much, are all well-drawn and suffer the grist of grinding through the machine constructed by the artifice. The book is a fine read for a summer day, and a testament to the power of storytelling that despite all the glaring creaky bits in the frame and the construction, that the machine of plot itself turns through its paces with a daring and sweeping grace. Lean back, and enjoy the wind-up toy.

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