Book Report: Devices and Desires
16 March 2006, 5:28 PM
OK, Your Humble Blogger has said before that there will spoilers in these Book Reports, without putting special spoiler warnings up, but since this entire note will be about the One Key Plot Point in K.J. Parker’s Devices and Desires, let me reiterate that reading any further will put you in full possession of an annoying bit of plot that may well ruin your enjoyment of the book. On the other hand, I had not only guessed that plot point from half-way through but was annoyed by it for the whole second half of the book, so avoiding the spoiler will not necessarily help. Still. Your call.
See, the thing that makes this book interesting and entertaining is the incredible detail Ms. Parker (or Mister, I suppose, but I think Ms. for some reason) goes into regarding the Siege of the Impregnable City. Not just the siege, either. There’s a lengthy bit about the guy who is leading the force to bring the siege engines to the foot of the mountain, and the problems he gets into when the map is wrong, and how after running behind he starts to run out of food, and has to cut rations, which slows down his men, which slows him down more, and then when he manages to luck into a flock of sheep, he has to bust up one of the carts for firewood, and that slows him down more, not to mention that the smoke from the fire gives away his position, etcetera etcetera. I actually found all this entertaining, although it was slow going, certainly, and since it is a side story involving none of the characters we have come to know over the first couple of hundred pages and has essentially no effect on the plot of the book or the development of the main characters I could understand that being the point that a reader gives up the whole thing for a lost cause. My point here is that the strong point of the book is specifically the detail about the difficulty of the siege, from what I’ll call a technical standpoint. That is, it’s not about the emotional toll, or about the politics of it, or the individual acts of bravery, tho’ those are mentioned to some extent, but about the, well, the engineering. The book is, after all, the first in the Engineer trilogy.
So. Ms. Parker knows a lot about sieges, and I know very little, having neither experienced one nor studied them in any detail. My knowledge is quite general, running to knowing the names of a few siege engines and more or less what they do, and having in my head the sort of general rules. One of them is a point that Ms. Parker makes quite well: an army laying siege far from home had damn’ well better keep an eye on its supply line or the besieged army will eat better than the besieging army, and that’s no way to win a war. And another, right up front, is that the defenders need to keep an eye on their water supply.
Now, I suppose it’s just barely, I mean just barely possible that the defenders would be so cocky in their never-been-taken fortress that they would forget about guarding the maze of conduits that their forefathers had dug under the mountain, or even that the water system had worked so well for so many generations that it became invisible to the residents of the mountaintop city. I would need that to be explained, particularly if anybody connected with the defense of the city is reading books on strategy that had been written elsewhere.
But it is not plausible that the mercenaries hired to take the city would not have, simply as a matter of course, looked into fouling the water supply. Particularly when the people who hired the mercenaries have informants in the city. No, it just isn’t.
So when the Big Plot Point is that our main character betrays the defenders by smuggling out the information about the water supply to the attackers, who then send in a handful of people to open the gates, and that the handful people do sneak in unobserved and do open the gates, well, that pretty much ruins the whole five hundred pages of carefully observed siege maneuvering, doesn’t it?
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,