Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K. J. Parker — Book Review
This is the story of Orhan, son of Siyyah Doctus Felix Praeclarissimus, and his history of the Great Siege, written down so that the deeds and sufferings of great men may never be forgotten.
A siege is approaching, and the city has little time to prepare. The people have no food and no weapons, and the enemy has sworn to slaughter them all.
To save the city will take a miracle, but what it has is Orhan. A colonel of engineers, Orhan has far more experience with bridge-building than battles, is a cheat and a liar, and has a serious problem with authority. He is, in other words, perfect for the job.
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Military Fantasy with a dash of humour
Series: The Siege (Duology)
Purchased my copy on the ol’ Kindle machine!
Gods, but Orhan is a prick.
I’ve had the best time reading K.J. Parker over the accursed, plague-ridden Armageddon that is 2020. Find a good author and watch them take your troubles away—that’s the magic of good literature, and if we use that criteria alone, here is a brilliant author indeed.
But escapism is far from the only reason you should read this one. Here is an author who excels at everything he does, from worldbuilding to dialogue to providing the best-written siege I’ve read in years with layers of realism that made my heart race throughout.
K. J. Parker’s control of narrative voice astounds. Orhan is the Colonel of the Engineer wing of the Robur military, a man who bristles against authority; a swindler, a liar, a man of near-infinite resourcefulness who sometimes lets his temper get away from him. He’s also a “milk-face,” a human in a society of blue-skins who despise and see him as a primitive. The division reminded me very much of Brust’s Vlad Taltos, which sees the same discriminatory practices towards humans by the taller, far more “civilized” conquerors—it’s a great trope and Parker does wonderful work with it.
Back to the main character: Parker writes bastards. The one in Prosper’s Demon had an outlook on life that didn’t translate itself to humour all that well; besides, demonic possession in a Renaissance-era setting makes for more somber a tone. Orhan, an enormous bastard himself—you’ll find plenty of textual evidence for that—has a little something called…integrity? Basic human decency, perhaps? It’s rare that you’ll see it, but it’s there, I promise.
The worldbuilding is insular, yet extensive. Much of the book takes place in the eponymous walled city, called simply “The City.” It is the centre of the Robur Empire, a warlike people whose expansionist policies are drawn straight from the Roman history books. The City might have a familiar feel to anyone familiar with the history of the Byzantine Empire—it’s a riff on Constantinople with so many of that great city’s features. A hippodrome; two factions, the Blues and Greens; gladiatorial games and carriage races; a tactical access to sea and land both.
The world is illustrated with authority through mimesis. Orhan sketches out the intricacies of cultures and of their histories, of the economic rules through which the City functions and of its partisan politics; most of all, he draws the intricacies of his trade in such a way you’re left with no doubt as to his superior expertise. Orhan does so both in the privacy of his own head and through dialogue with many other characters.
The prose is excellent and never trite; the way description and characterization are woven together left nothing but impression, like here: “‘You’re smart,’ I said. She has this sort of wan smile.” It speaks of familiarity, of intimacy in only so many words. This one, too: “Vanity is her one weakness. She knows she’s pretty, because men tell her, over and over again, and it brings her nothing but aggravation. But I’m the only one who tells her she’s clever. ‘Go on,’ she said.” I love this, and Parker uses it to such excellent effect.
Something about the cover caught my eye last year. Bright colours, a font that recalls a medieval manuscript, but with a whimsical edge. A very stylized look, which immediately sets a particular identity to the book, somewhere between historical artifact and a mock “how-to” manual.
This is military fiction, and some of the finest I have read. Orhan’s expertise is portrayed as the finest, most sound engineering I’ve read to date. I’ve highlighted five times as many paragraphs as my Kindle allows me before the clipping limit sets in, which should tell you something. It is funny but cuts deep, and the shock of the ending, the delivery and the strength of its twist left me staggered, eyes glazing over the page.
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a bad book to read in the middle of the night. It calls for reflection and I’ve spent more hours thinking about it when I should have been sleeping than is healthy; I regret not a second of them, though. Not even one.
Get this book, read it, and thank me later.