SIXTEEN WAYS TO DEFEND A WALLED CITY by K. J. Parker (Book Review)
I leapt at this book with an enthusiasm born of an engineering background, an appreciation of historical sieges, a love of fantasy and a yearning for humour.
History, fantasy and historical fiction are littered with iconic sieges: Minas Tirith in Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings; Badon Hill in Cornwell’s Arthurian Warlord Chronicles; The Alamo with John Wayne’s performance as Davy Crocket; Druss’ defence of Dros Delnoch in Gemmell’s Legend. The desperate husbanding of resources, the mix of claustrophobic boredom and terrifying action, the frightened restless citizenry, all make siege warfare a subject ripe with narrative potential.
Parker’s premise prompted a fresh take on this niche genre with the un-warlike engineers thrust into the forefront of affairs, like Michael Caine’s military surveyors at Rourke’s Drift in the film Zulu. And to all this was added the promise of a healthy side-serving of self-deprecating humour. So I went in with heightened expectations that it is perhaps unfair to load on a single book.
Parker delivers his first person account of the travails of Colonel Orhan in a light breezy tone that made this an easy read, quickly devoured. The book nonetheless delivered some sharp Pratchett-esque lines that drew a smile or a laugh. For example,
The difference between luck and a wheelbarrow is, luck doesn’t work if you push it.
Orhan has a kind of Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpock city watch vibe about him. That feeling is accentuated by the Captain Carrot-like persona of Orhan’s second in command, the tall stickler for procedure Nicephorus Bautzes (or Nico when author or reader tires of the phonetic punning in his full first name).
Nonetheless there is a serious side to the world Parker presents us with. The Imperialist capital bears a more than passing resemblance to Ancient Rome in its dotage and an empire that has grown so bloated it has assimilated many of its conquered peoples into service in its armed forces. There is a racial divide within this world, the conquering imperialists like Nico are tall blue-skinned Robur, while Orhan is a “milkface” whose carpentry skills have seen him rise from desperate conquered captivity to colonel in chief of the engineers. Racial prejudice consigns Orhan to the margins of many a military conference. There are honourable exceptions such as Nico, but there is that underlying thread of tension in the story that the people and city Orhan is defending are not “his people.”
The city itself, by an accident of plot, ends up denuded of all defense save Orhan’s itinerant company of engineers and a rag tag alliance of parks and garden wardens, corrupt policemen and the Themes. In his Themes, Parker makes another nod in the direction of ancient Rome where citizens were driven to intense rivalries over their sporting favourites named just for one of four colours. Parker reduces the colours to two, Blues and Greens, but expands the ferocity of their rivalry and extends their area of operation beyond gladitorial combat or sporting events into a mafia-like domination of all aspects of city life and economic activity. Orhan’s challenge is to weld these disparate opposing groups into an effective defence force.
Parker fills his besieged city with an intriguing mix of people, more personalities than characters. There is Orhan’s ferociously loyal body guard, the fearfully vacillating bureaucrat, the mercurially brilliant female engineer, the fierce innkeeping daughter of Orhan’s best friend, and many others. I can’t say their portrayals felt especially deep or rounded, but they all play the parts given to them efficiently enough.
The plot is the part that I found the weakest. I had hoped for something that would combine two of my favourite reads. The first is the brilliant military pseudo manual The Defence of Duffer’s Drift, in which a young officer in the Boer war is educated through a sequence of six dreams of successive failures. Each time he draws fresh lessons with which to improve his next attempt. It’s a short book, lightly written, and yet conveys some real military insights into the essential do’s and don’ts of defending a position.
The second hope was for some of that satirical transposition of real-world experience into a fantasy milieu that Pratchett did so well.
However, I found the worldbuilding lacked logic. For example the empire that maintains five or six fleets but only enough sailors to crew two of them at a time, and a fleet can be held entirely at bay by one extinguished lighthouse. All military stores are kept in one central location which can be looted in its entirety by the enemy. This may enable Parker to put Orhan in some amusing situations, but the implausibility of the set up meant I had to quickly reframe my expectations of military and strategic realism.
Again, when it came to the siege weaponry Orhan’s adaptation of trebuchets to deliver something akin to Barnes Wallis’s dambusting bouncing bombs was certainly creative, on engineer’s and author’s part. However, when the same weapons were deployed and fired with precision within the narrow confines of the city streets, well – it jarred. Certainly it did not match my experience from Medieval Total War. Essentially, the military details always seemed to be playing the straightman to Parker’s efforts to deliver comedic opportunities.
Now humour in fantasy is a difficult ask and when I realised that K.J.Parker also writes under the name of Tom Holt I found a certain familiarity both in his style and in my reservations. I’ve previously read Holt’s The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice, and I should emphasise that I found Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City to be a more accomplished and enjoyable read. However, there was a still a sense of the humour being a little strained and the plot being summarily wrestled into the shape that Parker wanted like an inflatable doll being squeezed into a suitcase. Incidents were strung together in a kind of “what can we make Orhan deal with now” kind of manner. While that may be the nature of a siege, it did make the reading experience feel a little schizophrenic at times.
There was an intriguing twist part way through where the empire turns out to have reaped many of the seeds it had sown. However, as with The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice, I got the feeling that Parker wasn’t quite sure how to bring his story to a satisfactory close. As the end of the siege drew near the threads and tensions in the plot felt more like a tangle than a well woven tapestry. In the end it reminded me a bit of Time Vine’s stand up comedy act. Vine is a one line gag specialist whose act consists of a sequence of well told but brief and disconnected jokes, and at the end would simply sign off with a thank you and good night as he left the stage. Amusing as Orhan could be, what meat there was to the story lay not so much in his character arc, as in the broad brush critique of imperialism and racial prejudice.
But, as I said, I came to this book with heightened – you may even say demanding or conflicting – expectations and I can’t say with any precision what make of story could have entirely satisfied me. Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is nonetheless a swift and enjoyable read that stretches the envelope of that niche-genre “fantasy siege warfare” in some new directions.