Underground Reading: The Engineer Trilogy by KJ Parker
Friday, June 18, 2010
Over the past week, I've burned through K.J. Parker's exceptional Engineer Trilogy. First published between 2005 and 2007, this is Parker's most recent series.
It is, as hinted above, brilliant. Parker's infectious, stylish use of language combines with a distinctly philosophical approach to make one of the best series I've ever read.
The Engineer Trilogy is about a lot of things, and a lot of people, but, central to the action is Ziani Vaatzes. Vaatzes is an engineer from the Republic of Mezentia, a sort of Roman analogue that has a distinct technological advantage over its surrounding nations. Vaatzes is an impressive engineer at that - so when he's sentenced to death for a seemingly minor infraction of Mezentine law - his analytical mind clicks into action. Not only does Vaatzes escape from prison, but, once in exile, begins a series of military and political maneuvers will change the face of the world.
This is well beyond your typical stableboy/prophecy stuff, and, despite the importance of technology, this shouldn't be confused with steampunk either. Parker is past world-building or fantastical gimmickry.
The setting is an abstracted analogue of the real world and the cultures are deliberately streamlined archetypes. The characters are brilliant - empathetic, fascinating and absorbing - but even they're not the core of the book. This series is a deliberately provocative exploration of what makes people tick.
So, acknowledging that I think Parker is the greatest thing since sliced bread, why do I hate reviewing the books so much?
1) KJ Parker, just to bring everyone up to speed, is a pseudonym, supposedly for a well-known author. About half the internet is convinced that Parker is Tom Holt and the other half swears that Parker is a woman. (There's no overlap between the two camps, for biological reasons). Personally, I'm terrified that after waxing lyrical about Parker, he/she is going to turn out to be Dan Brown. That'd be horrible, and I'd be very upset.
2) Parker really skirts the edge of this blog's remit, and, therefore, my own amateurish expertise. I'm happy to rant about world-building, zombies, grimpunk and 1950's sex tropes, but this here is proper literature, innit. A real analysis ofThe Engineer Trilogy should take into account that this is a 1500 page treatise on the nature of evil. If I dusted off my textbooks, I could probably have a shot at it, but that sounds suspiciously like work. Let it suffice that Parker isn't kitsch.
So, keeping in mind that I've already planted a flag on Parker's greatness and really don't want to get into the hard thinkin', here's how it comes out: I think Parker is one of the two best fantasy authors writing today.
The other, for the record, is China Miéville. Like Mr. Miéville, Parker uses fantasy (roughly defined as "non-reality") settings to address the Big, Intangible Issues. Well-written fantasy generally stomps around shouting about identity and friendship, but Miéville and Parker both take it further, and use the liberation of the non-existant setting to discuss larger themes: authorship, for example (Miéville's Scar) or duty (Parker's Purple and Black).
The difference between the two is in style. Mr. Miéville has a terrifying vocabulary and is prone to a lavish, near-Byzantine style. He also doesn't hesitate to use fantastic elements - demons, nightmare moths, tree-people - to help visualize and personify his supporting points.
Parker is the polar opposite. (S)he writes short, impactful sentences varied with occasional bouts of straight-faced, bureaucratic prose. Detail is conspicuous by its absence. If Miéville is craftsmanship, Parker is engineering (how appropros). And, for something shelved in fantasy, there's never a drop of the fantastic. These are two completely different expressions of the author's confidence and talent: Miéville is skillful enough to invent what he needs. Parker is skillful enough to avoid needing much.
I was ostensibly reviewing something at some point.
So here goes: The Engineer Trilogy is fantastic. It is about people and machines and the occasional lack of difference between the two. It is stark without being boring, brutal without being gory and thoughtful without being worthy. And, without being overly sentimental, it is easily the best fantasy trilogy I have read in years - probably ever.