This is an interesting little book (okay, a 700 page book but work with me on this one.... ). What we basically have is a fantasy novel without any actual fantasy or magic. We have instead a continent where THE major power in the land is the Perpetial Republic, a city state oh technically advanced people who manpiulate the surrounding dukedoms with a mixture of technical military superiority and total control of manufactured goods. (Globalisation anyone?? :P) Picture if you will a sort of pre-gunpowder civilisation with De Vinci given free range to build toys.
These people are Engineers. They work towards prefection in everything and over the last 200 years have established 'The Specification' for EVERYTHING they make. Since the Specification defines prefection then to devate from this is considered an abomination and punishable by death. The engineer Ziani, in an attempt to make a better toy for his daughter has become such an abomination and because the city will not promise to look after his wife and daughter after his death, violently escapes the city and ends up in the employ of one of the neighbouring dukedoms which has just came second in a short, bloody and one sided war against the Republic. He then sets out on a complex manipulation of everyone around him in order to gain his revenge on the city and to see his wife and daughter again.
I enjoyed this book, probably partly because deep down I have never been a big fan of high fantasy and stories about goat shaggers sons to grow up to discover they have 'THE GIFT(tm)'. Or Dragons. Never got into dragons. Engineering on the other hand I do understand - I have an Advanced Certificate in Engineering after all and work in the industry - and here we have a book that by and large sticks to real world concepts.
The other reason I like this book is you really develop an attachment for the main characters and all of them go through their lifes with their own motivations and drives. No one is actually evil or a 'bad guy', they just have their own reasons and needs for their actions.
And so the 'annoying' bits.... The book is a little bloke central. Only two female characters really get a speaking role in this novel and neither of them end up getting much screen time. The two characters are relatively important to the plot, they just hover around the background alot. KJ Parker is a pen name of someone it is implied is female (but confusingly she/he is also sometimes refered to as male in the interviews I have managed to track down online and in some reviews.) I would half expect a female author to give their stories more active females but then again you wouldn't normally expect a female to go to lengths to describe the manufacture of massive war machines.
There is also the slightly elastic time frame where sometimes things happen over the course of a few days and then suddenly BANG, it seems a month has passed and also has the common problem of a lot of the action happening 'offscreen'. (as well as the having the cop out of having at least 3 people being knocked out or knocked over early in a battle and hence having most of the action happen while they are down).
I also have a little bit of grief about the effects of some of these war machines. The main ones are Scorpian bolt throwers that seem to fire 12 bolts a minute up to about 350 yards. In the book they lay down massed curtains of fire and kill thousands at a time. Indeed most of the book revolves around the importance of these weapons.
I however are a bit doubtful. Until about the Napoleonic wars period artillery's role in life was either siege or as a means to force a reaction in a field battle. If out gunned in artillery you were forced to either disengage or close with and engage the enemy. Okay muzzle loaded smooth bore guns did not fire 12 shots per minute but they also killed more then one man per bolt. Also the Greeks and Romans had the engineering skill levels to build war engines similar to the scorpions and yet they never featured heavily in their battles. Yet in our book here we have 1000s being killed from scorpion fire alone.
Still, it is an interesting read with nicely balanced characters and a plot that slowly creeps up on until you realise near the end just who is back stabbing who.