Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K. J. Parker

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback Format – 9 April 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 350 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Ok, now this was one hell of a book!!!

K. J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction that keeps the reader enthralled with its excellent story, fantastic self-aware humour and one of the best depictions of a siege that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. The end result was an excellent read that I just had to give a full five stars to, and it has to be one of my favourite books of 2019 so far.

The Robur Empire is one of the great civilisations in the world, and at its heart lies the City, capital and seat of power of the Emperor, kept safe by its impenetrable walls, powerful armies and unsurpassed navies.  However, that safety is unexpectantly compromised when a massive force of soldiers appears out of nowhere, slaughtering the entire imperial army, crippling the navy and completely surrounded the City.

The only forces left garrisoned in the City are the men of the Empire’s Engineering Corps, led by Colonel-in-Chief Orhan, who suddenly finds himself in charge of the defence of the City.  Orhan is a coward, a glorified bridge builder, a man able to work the complex imperial military system for his own gain and a foreigner despised by most of Robur society, but he is not a great military leader.  He is, however, one of the most devious and underhanded men the army has ever seen, and these might just be the qualities needed to save the City from destruction.  As Orhan works to unite the various factions in the City to his cause and come up with a range of unique defences, he makes a shocking discovery.  A figure from his past is leading the assault against the City, and Orhan quickly realises that he might be on the wrong side of this battle.

I really enjoyed this latest book from Parker, who has created a complex and captivating fantasy tale that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  K. J. Parker is actually a pseudonym of author Tom Holt, who was able to keep the dual identity secret for 17 years before it was revealed in 2015.  Between his two identities, the author has written an amazing number of books since his 1987 debut, mostly focused on the fantasy genre.  This includes over 30 humorous fantasy novels as Tom Holt, five historical fiction novels, the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies as Parker, a number of standalone fantasy books and a huge range of short fiction, some poems, songs and even some non-fiction work.  For those who may be concerned, no reading of any of Parker’s prior work is required to enjoy Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City as this latest book is a standalone novel.  Still, I will be keeping an eye out for any future books by either Tom Holt or K. J. Parker as I really enjoyed the author’s writing style and fantastic sense of humour.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an intriguing novel that is told from the perspective of its “hero” Orhan, who is narrating the story of his defence of this city within a historical text.  This story is incredibly entertaining, as not only does it feature a first-rate siege within an excellent fantasy location, but it is told by a complex and multi-layered character who paints the entire ordeal of being in charge in a very funny light.

I am a man who loves a good siege storyline, but this has to be one of the best ones that I have ever had the pleasure of reading.  At the start of the siege the situation looks grim, as a vast host surrounds the City, whose defenders have all been slaughtered outside the walls, with the exception of Orhan’s engineers, who lack the basic military supplies and machinery to defend the City.  As the enemy start a conventional long-term siege with advanced weaponry and superior forces, Orhan is forced to come up with something to delay their inevitable defeat in the hopes of reinforcements turning up.  Without the required men, equipment or leadership, they cannot rely on the traditional 15 methods of defending a walled city that the books suggest, so he has to rely on the on his own 16th way, which involves bluffing, chaos and mad-cap innovation.  As a result, much of the book features Orhan’s many unconventional methods to defend the City, whether it involves taking symbolic control of the entire empire, legitimising and attempting to control two rival criminal gangs or creating devastating new siege weapons.  The protagonist and his men’s engineering prowess comes in effect quite a bit throughout the book, and I loved seeing the machines and other unique defence methods that he deploys as a result.  All the various deceptions and tactics used to hold the City against this superior force is widely entertaining and I absolutely loved the siege storyline which serves as an amazing centre to this incredible story.

The setting that the author chooses for this book is pretty interesting and adds a lot of great elements to the story.  The Robur Empire is pretty much the Roman Empire, with the City being this universe’s equivalent of Rome.  I thought that the City was a fantastic setting for the vast majority of the story, and the various factions and problems with such a large city really tied into the great siege storyline.  The City’s criminal organisations, the Greens and the Blues, former charioteer supporters (very Roman) turned rival criminal unions, are the cause of a large amount of strife, and I liked how their own battles and self-importance became such a major part of this book.  I also felt that Parker did an amazing job portraying a city that sits at the heart of a massive empire, and the attitudes of the people within felt pretty accurate.

On top of the great setting, Parker has also created an intriguing, extended world for this story.  The Robur Empire is a great overall setting for most of this book, as its setup, design and attitudes are very similar to the ancient Romans.  Parker’s initially subtle use of racial identity in this empire is quite intriguing, and it becomes a major part of the book.  Essentially the empire is made up of the pure-blooded Robur, who are called blueskins due to their darker skin colouration.  Then there are those people with white skin, who are given the derogatory name of milkfaces, who are treated like second-class citizens within the empire, and who came from lands conquered by the Imperials.  Not only does this become an important plot point with the army attacking the City made up completely of milkfaces, but it is reminiscent of the Roman Empire, when the pure-blooded Roman citizens looked down upon the paler barbarians from Gaul, Britain or Germany.  I also liked how the author tried to replicate the precision military system of the Romans with the Robur, and it was fun to see how the problems of such a system came into play throughout this book, such as having the military resources of the entire empire being kept in supply depo sites rather than in the capital.  I quite enjoyed these fantastic settings, and I thought that they were an excellent place to set these complex stories.

While the siege storylines and settings are extremely amazing, this book would be nothing without its main character and the person narrating this fictional historical text, Orhan.  Orhan is an amazingly complex character, and the personality that Parker creates for his hero is outstanding.  Orhan is a milkface who has risen to high military command within the Robur Empire due to his abilities as an engineer.  As a result of his hard early life and the constant belittlement and discrimination by the blueskins he serves under, he is an incredibly cynical person with a very jaded outlook on life.  The author does an amazing job transcribing these character traits onto the page, often in a sarcastic and very entertaining manner as he describes the events going on around him, and the reader gets a great sense of the character’s frustrations.  While Orhan is attempting to defend the City, his own narrations reveal him to be an extremely self-serving and selfish person who has been forced by circumstances rather than duty to protect the City.  His motivations become even more complex as he begins to wonder if he is on the wrong side of the conflict, as the invading army is completely made up of milkfaces like himself, and even when he is doing the right thing the blueskins in the city that he is defending still treat him badly.  Even with that doubt, he is a surprisingly (especially to himself) effective commander, whose deceitful and inventive nature, as well as his extensive knowledge of history and engineering, allows him to come up with some outstanding defensive strategies.  My favourite has to involve his unique method for dealing with the enemy’s sappers, which sees him use his knowledge of the City, his craft and his ability to manipulate his opponents to create a fantastic response.  The entire sequence involving this anti-sapper technique is one of the best parts of the book, and I love the doubt and regret he experiences as a result of his actions.  Overall, Orhan is an outstanding narrator, and his depiction of the chaotic event and his part in them really made this story for me.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction, and I think I already have a contender for my future top ten books of 2019 list.  This book has to be read to fully appreciate its complexity and cleverness, and I found it to be boundlessly entertaining and widely funny.  K. J. Parker’s latest book comes highly recommended, and it is well worth checking out.

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