So I finished this massive brick of a book, and I regret to report that I skimmed the last 20 pages or so. Given that they contained the climax, the culmination of the previous 600 or so pages worth of plot, I don’t think I’ll be recommending this novel to anybody. Which is a pity, because it started so well.
What’s tragic is that I can see where K.M. Parker went wrong. He started with an idea–what will an ordinary man do for love? And then did a reductio ad absurdam, taking that question to such extremes, and making the accomplishment of that man’s goals dependent on so many ridiculous variables that his pulling off his scheme was simply unbelievable.
The reasons this book doesn’t work for me are because a) the characters are flat, b) the plot is improbably nigh unto unbelievability and c) Parker has the unfortunate tendency to dwell at length on minutiae that end up boring you to tears.
I actually enjoyed this book tremendously for the first 200 pages or so. Parker’s knowledge of mechanical engineering was a pleasure to read, his world was pleasant to explore, and the prospect of his protagonist putting his engineering knowledge to further his goals was fun to anticipate.
Where it all started to go wrong was that the characters developed nicely up until page 200, and then simply stopped growing. I realized the Miel Ducas was always going to be polite, mildly confused, self effacing and noble, no matter what. That Duke Orsea would remain insecure, foolish, deferential and out of his depth no matter what happened. That Vaatzes would be cold and brilliant, etc, etc. They didn’t change. Situations never prompted character growth. As such, they were reduced to chess pieces in Parker’s game; it’s telling that in the interview at the end of the novel, Parker reveals that his characters never surprised him. Having read the book, I don’t see how they could have.
Furthermore, the whole plot revolved around an incredibly improbable plan. [Spoilers ahead]One that was so dependent on luck and near prophetic vision on the part of the protagonist that I simply couldn’t believe it. At the end of the novel, he visits the betrayed Miel Ducas, and explains in detail how he pulled off his plan (Miel Ducas, true to form, remains polite and confused). In a moment worthy of the worst penny dreadfuls, Vaatzes reveals how he entered the boar hunt precisely so as to be able to hit a boar in the rear leg so as to force it to attack him, and thus force Miel to kill the boar and save his life, and thus grant Vaatzes entry to Miel’s home as he recovered, allowing him the chance to then converse with Miel’s loyal servants, so as to bribe one into revealing to him where Miel hid his most treasured belongings, which she does only because Vaatzes assures her that it’s just for a lark, and pays her enough money for her to go retire and buy a farm (all this on the off chance of Miel having hidden something there that Vaatzes thinks he may have, due to yet another improbable string of deductions.)
I mean, what? By that point I had lost almost all interest in the novel, and was just mildly curious to see how it would play out, but when this reveal came about I just said fuck it and started skimming. Because Parker makes it clear that Vaatzes had no idea where Miel was when he shot the boar; Miel could have been anywhere in the five square miles the hunt went, yet somehow Miel is close enough to come running in and save the day. And Parker also makes it clear that this servant, whose family has been with him for generations, truly loves Miel, yet she’s willing to divulge family secrets to a hated foreigner, and do so for a lot of gold. Doesn’t make sense.
Finally, what was pleasurable in the beginning (the meticulous descriptions of Vaatzes’ thought processes as he analyzed problems from an engineer’s POV, extended descriptions of the different society’s cultures) rapidly becomes overwhelming. Parker was clearly having fun exploring the sacred text’s of the Mezantines, of going into detail as to how boars should be hunted, and what the protocol for such hunts were, and on and on about how machines work and so forth, but after awhile, as I lost interest in the characters, all this information simply became tedious. Too much!
So there you have it. What started off in a promising manner quickly grew stale, flat and improbable as Parker failed to breath life into his two dimensional characters, relied on a wholly improbable plot, and dwelled far too long on infodumps and cultural asides that did nothing for the story.
Too bad, really.