No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, December 27, 2007

#75: The Escapement -- K J Parker

The conclusion to Parker's 'Engineer' trilogy: I've always admired Parker's plotting, encyclopaedic military knowledge and understated humour, but the 'Engineer' books are the first in which the characters have really caught my interest. They are competent and practical, fitted for their roles but capable of improvisation when everything falls apart. They have ambition, humour, hopes and fears. They are human and likeable.

What can I say? K J Parker doesn't do happy endings. Though it could be said that these are happy endings. Marriage! Reinstatement! A long and pampered life! Military supremacy! Vengeance! The comforting knowledge of having been right all along! Everything has worked out just right, in theory. And in practice everyone is fiercely miserable. Apart from the happy dead, of course.
The quickest way to a man's death is through his heart, but if you want to get into his brain ...
Psellus, promoted beyond his competence and struggling to hold onto the Mezentine Empire, is grimly determined to solve the mystery of why Vaatzes committed abomination in the first place, and to find a solution to the real, nasty and million-strong consequence of that abomination. The book starts with the same scene -- the fencing lesson -- as the previous two: it's Psellus's lesson this time, and he learns something different from it, something new.

And everywhere people are musing on the uselessness of honour and the emptiness of revenge. Miel Ducas, courtesy and breeding all but worn away by his partner in crime, but still preferring to be lynched as a highwayman than dishonoured as an aristocrat ("if you weren't a stupid, ignorant low-class woman you'd understand that", he thinks but is still too courteous to say); Vaatzes protesting that "revenge is the last thing on my mind. I never believed in it and I don't want it"; Veatriz considering love, and how it doesn't solve everything, and how only a romantic like the Machiavellian Duke Valens -- who knows the way to any man's heart, except perhaps his own -- would think that it did. "Poor man, he's lived his life thinking that the book closes at the first kiss, and that being in love is like crossing a border, over which they can't follow you. Perhaps he thought love could be starved out with a blockade, or stormed with overwhelming force, once the defences had been undermined."

In The Escapement, lies are layered: the lies about the Mezentine Empire, its foundation, the Specifications that dictate every aspect of life. The lies that two people in love tell one another. The lies that a commander tells his men. The lies that rivals tell one another, the sins of omission; the truths that aren't believed.

There's a great deal of detail about medieval / Renaissance warfare, especially siege warfare, that might choke the reader unaccustomed to Parker's pace. Easier to go with the flow, to see how metaphors are constructed from that material: the illuminating glow of the cold spot in a forging, the perfect ignorant mimicry of an illiterate copyist, the escapement that lets a mechanism work in a controlled way, rather than running free. Pain 'like an army of occupation; a strong garrison in the centre, but elsewhere its control was patchy'. (That's from an incident that befalls Duke Valens, an incident requiring messy and ingenious surgery: it's based, Parker adds in an endnote, on a wound sustained by Henry V at the Battle of Shrewsbury.)

There are some threads that don't seem satisfactorily concluded (Daurenja's past; the founding of the Empire) and some tics that become quite infuriating (characters who are never named). And if a happy ending is required, this is not the book for you. But it's clever and wistful and emphatically practical, marrying philosophy and ethics with the fine art and coarse, bloody science of warfare, and though the resolutions are icy-cold and implacable, it all comes out like clockwork.

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