At the beginning of this ~700-page novel, peace breaks out between the Eremians and the Vadani. Valens, very soon to be Duke of the Vadani, is not best pleased, as he has fallen irrevocably in love with Veatriz, a nobly-born Eremian hostage, who ends up married (for political reasons) to the Eremian Duke, Orsea.
However, this is a K J Parker novel, so there is plenty of time for bloodshed, battle, feuding and treachery.
Off to the east lies the Mezentine Empire, vast and technologically superior. The engineer Ziani Vaatzes is sentenced to death for innovation, for straying from the strict Specifications that govern all Mezentine technology. In an uncharacteristically dashing escape, he evades his sentence and his captors and ends up working for the Eremians, who have just been comprehensively thrashed by the Mezentine army.
Vaatzes is a clever man, and he has a Plan. ("I use the materials available to me," he says to one of his weapons, later. "If I can't use steel, I have to use flesh instead. Not what I'd have chosen, but you do your best with what you've got.") This plan -- not wholly divulged by the end of Devices and Desires, part one of a trilogy -- is designed to return Vaatzes to his home and reunite him with the wife he loves. And the plan, the machine, is ruthless: the inevitable result of engaging the machine would be the end of the world.
Which would all be so much epic-fantasy-by-the-inch if Parker's characters weren't so richly drawn. Valens is a romantic who nevertheless manages to be a resourceful, hardheaded statesman, a skilled huntsman and an astonishingly mundane correspondent. Orsea, thrust into a position of power which he never expected, has a headful of grandiose ideas but lacks the ability to bring them to fruition. Veatriz is half of a marriage that can't provide the intellectual stimulation she requires. Vaatzes is a sympathetic character, as long as you set aside that stuff about the end of the world (and the appalling bodycounts in the battles he instigates): there's more to him, and his crime, than Parker explains in this first volume. Psellus, a Mezentine civil servant seconded to Necessary Evil (the Department of War) is a bumbling fool who'd like a quiet life, but there's a quality to him that indicates he won't get one any time soon. And Miel Ducas, Orsea's chief advisor and best friend (not to mention childhood sweetheart of Veatriz, and former heir apparent to the title of Duke) is an extraordinarily likeable character, a nobleman comfortably aware of his flaws, a good man through and through -- and an unwitting part of Vaatzes' terrible machine. Does it sound odd to say that I was angry on his behalf for what befell him?
The Engineer trilogy looks set to accomplish something rare in epic fantasy: there is, as far as I can tell, no magic. There are no gods (though characters do say 'for God's sake', &co; I take this as an aspect of Parker's way with dialogue). Early on, there's a vague mention of the Ducas family, as old nobility, being prone to prophetic dreams: but none occur. And there are a couple of dreams that might have supernatural provenance, but probably don't.
Another thing I like about K J Parker's writing: the colloquial dialogue, the tone (not exactly light-hearted but certainly not all doom and gloom), the black humour and the wry observations. Parker can make me laugh out loud at a scene where Miel is explaining to Orsea that he'd probably recognise an executed spy, what with his memory for faces, except that unfortunately they've already sent the head off to the spymasters. The humour isn't as thickly applied as in a Pratchett novel, but it's often as funny.
This novel -- purchased because of my great respect for Parker's previous 'Fencer' and 'Scavenger' trilogies -- has been sitting on the shelf since Easter, or possibly before; as soon as I'd finished it (which was in a hotel room in Lille) I ordered the next one, Evil for Evil, from Amazon (isn't web'n'walk wonderful?) because I was desperate to find out what happened to everybody.