The Escapement by K.J. Parker

I’ve finished K.J. Parker’s Engineer Trilogy, of which the last book is The Escapement. I wrote about the second book, Evil for Evil, here and I read my past review before writing this one, and the same issues came up.

In my past review, I noted that Parker likes to describe certain scenarios as if told by the third person of the character that is being affected. So you still get a lot of scenes in which someone who just got shot with an arrow saying things like “someone was just shot with an arrow; and lo and behold, it’s me.” In a way, it’s nice because it tries to get at the dissociation that one might feel when finding out about one’s own grievous injuries. I think there are examples of this involving soldiers who are seriously wounded but then carry on for a while and then realize that something is seriously wrong, like, they’re missing a leg. Still I was surprised that I mentioned this fact in a previous post, because it really is true and describes Parker’s style into this book.

I agree with most of what I said about the previous book and most of my grips continued over into this book, though I became even more frustrated by some of the directions that this book went.

One thing that bugs me is how hard it is to follow something so complex when there is such time between the books. I mean, most of the action revolves around something Parker is really good at it, which is differing amounts of information that different characters have access to. There are long dialogues in which one character tried to read the other and they dance around, each one trying to gain information that the other suspects the other of having. This gets boring sometimes, but it’s mostly good. The issue though is that you forget, after not reading the series for 6 months, what the hell is going on and why some characters no longer care about momentous information that just a few chapters before threatened to upset the entire narrative of the story.

There are also some metaphors that get played out, and I’m not an author so it’s hard for me to be too critical, but they get really heavy-handed. I mean there is a point about how each of the characters does something horrible for love, and so love is then figured in two ways throughout the book, both as the source of all evil and as a mechanical type of coercion that forces people into doing disastrous things. The metaphor of a mechanism (the title is a mechanical device) is also used time and time again to describe the plotting of the main character Ziani Vaatzes, who manipulates every single character by book’s end into creating the outcome he wanted.

What bothers me about this is that in the last pages of the book, he asserts that he had the ENTIRE thing planned right from the beginning, which given the coincidences and hugely uncertain events that he eventually relied, just seems ridiculous. It also seems infuriatingly plausible because the main character really does seem to be able to get his way with everyone. This is what’s so obnoxious though, because no other character is really his equal, and despite dominating everyone in the novel, he still, for some reason, has to again go into exile even though he just moved and heaven and earth to get OUT of exile.

There’s also Miel Ducas, who is a character I just can’t understand. He’s obsessed with his duty and its a constant theme in the book, but he becomes a robber at one point who kills soldiers for their clothes, but then he says he cares about protecting the innocent, but then he goes and burns down the houses with women and children inside. Morally ambiguous characters are great, but with Miel, I’m just confused as to what’s going on. The epilogueish type section in which major ending actions are listed doesn’t seem to make any sense to my mind, or at least, I don’t understand why his closing actions in the book are significant.

Also, the surprise ending is completely unexpected and not warranted at all by some of the cryptic comments that the narrator sprinkles in. There is a hint that some cataclysmic plan is in the works and that it can be discovered by the leader of the Mezentine Army, Lucao Psellus, but this is never borne out. There is a continuing reference to Ziani Vaatzes’ wife being the key to the mystery, but she really plays no part in the ending sequence. Really, we find out that the whole middle book which involved bringing these savage nomads into the coalition that was going to destroy the impregnable city of the Mezentines. However, in the end, we find out that the elaborate plan of Vaatzes is partially to destroy these nomads for all time because the threat they pose to civilization. Why does he care and what a surprising (but not in a good way) ending.

All in all, I would say that the book is not bad, but there are just a lot mixed signals about what’s going on who is supposed to be sympathized with.

I leave you with, however, with this sweet section of the book which really nicely combines some of the metaphors / artistic components of the book into the realization on the part of the main character that life itself requires imprecision.

Necessary evil; in Mezentine terms, that could only mean the permitted degree of error allowed for in the specification, the tolerance. That was implicit in the paradox, necessary evil. Good and evil, perfect and imperfect, the simple gauge used in every process to check whether a component is the right size; either it fits or it doesn’t. Between the component and the edge of the gauge lies the infinite space of necessary evil (because nothing is perfect, nothing ever measures exactly five-thousandths; the limitations of the measuring tool are necessary evil), and the truth of the matter, the point he’d never grasped before but which shone in his face now like a glaring light, was what Bioannes had said. If anything is to be made, necessary evil must span the gap between specification and reality, one foot on the numbers, the other in tolerance, forming a bridge between the work and the edge of the gauge. For Boioannes and himself, for Valens and his duchess, even for Daurenja, in love with the weapon of his dreams, war was the necessary evil, the evil necessary in order to put right something that should have never been, something that violated the numbers, some abomination. (236)


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