Author: K.J. Parker
Genre: Epic Fantasy, Steampunk
Series: Engineer Trilogy Book One
The Mezentine Empire is the most powerful empire in the known world, and the key to its success has been its advanced technological innovations, which are designed to the strictest of specifications. Violating these specifications is a death sentence, and a death sentence is what Ziani Vaatzes, a Mezentine factory manager, receives when he tries to build a toy for his young daughter that doesn't follow specification.
Driven by the desire to reunite with his wife and daughter, Ziani begins to draw up his revenge, a revenge that will require the blood of thousands of innocents if it is at all to succeed.
All is fair in love and war. And that's essentially what you're looking at with Parker's Engineer Trilogy. A number of male characters are driven to acts of war, or irrational, or morally compromised, or just plain bad decisions because of the women they love. In this sense I'm reminded of A Song of Ice and Fire. After all, the events in that series are all essentially started by two men's love for one woman. But one of those men's love is not transparent at first. And it's slowly revealed that love is one of the main culprits behind all of the suffering that follows.
Devices and Desires on the other hand, blatantly states it's thematic aims of the destructive natures of love and war often and loudly like the drunk guy at the bar that won't stop lamenting the loss of his girlfriend. I appreciate the nuance of Martin's story, but I feel like I'm being lectured by Parker's.
Ziani's story isn't the only one being told. We're essentially introduced to a love quadrangle where three men in two different kingdoms outside the Mezentine Empire have fallen in love with a woman named Veatriz. Due to the patriarchal society they live in, she was engaged to a wealthy land owner named Miel Ducas, and they enjoyed a close childhood friendship. However her homeland of Eremia was at war with the Vadani and once peace was brokered out she had to spend some time in the Vadani kingdom where she meets their future leader/Duke, Valens.
It's all for naught when she ends up having to marry Miel Ducas' best friend Orsea, who ultimately becomes the Duke of Eremia. These three men, two of whom are smart, and of course the one she marries is completely moronic, will all be making some boneheaded decisions when it comes to Veatriz.
This is a story that likes to emphasize the mechanics of love, and frequently draw images to the more mechanical aspects of it's nature, especially when it's being used manipulatively. Parker specifically spends the entire novel focusing on romantic love and how it can effect larger world events. Romantic love, as far as I'm concerned, or at least healthy romantic love, usually requires two people who love each other, and are equal contributors to the relationship. With the focus entirely on heterosexual relationships, there seems to be little said on the subject of love, by any of the female characters.
Veatriz must be special if three men are willing to make world changing decisions for her benefit. But all you're really told about her is that she's smart, and was a victim of being a pawn in a patriarchal society. In effect she's a glorified 50's housewife who just sits around knitting and writing letters all day because the kitchen sink hasn't been invented yet. A story about heterosexual romantic love without any significant input from its female characters was quite frankly just a bad decision for the entire plot. And it easily weakens a story that has a lot of promising worldbuilding, some well designed male characters, and an interesting plot that's driven by a somewhat complicated political situation.