How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 18 August 2020)

Series: The Siege – Book Two

Length: 357 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to laugh like crazy with How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker, an intensely funny and clever fantasy read that was one of my most anticipated releases of 2020.

Several years after their home fell under a brutal and prolonged siege, the inhabitants of the City have settled into a new way of life.  There may be a vast army camped on the plains outside and the occasional catapult shot may demolish a house or two, but that does not mean that people cannot make some money and get on with their lives.  This includes Notker, an acclaimed actor, skilled lookalike and mediocre playwright, who scrapes a living by impersonating the rich and powerful of the City at parties while trying to get someone to pay him money for his latest play.  However, what Notker does not know is that fame, opportunity, and a rather large boulder are about to land in his lap.

When the City’s greatest hero and nominal leader, Lysimachus, secretly dies, his followers/handlers, desperate to stay in power, recruit Notker to play the role of a lifetime.  Impersonating Lysimachus, Notker continues to act as the city’s figurehead, allowing life to go on, and he even begins to think he has a handle on this simple job, until someone tries to murder him.  Now he finds himself in the midst of a brutal and ongoing power struggle as the various power players in the city attempt to manipulate him for their own ends resulting in him being crowned as Emperor of the entire Robur Empire (or what is left of it).

As Notker attempts to find some sanity within his home, he begins to understand what a fragile position the City is in.  With enemies surrounding them and the besiegers slowly overcoming the City’s defences, Notker needs to choose between making a run for it or trying to save the City.  But what difference can one very good actor make in a war?  If Notker has anything to do with it, everything!

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is another spectacular and extremely entertaining fantasy novel from legendary fantasy writer, K. J. Parker.  Parker, a pseudonym of bestselling author Tom Holt, has written a vast catalogue of books over the years, including a substantial collection of humorous and satirical fantasy novels.  I first really got into Parker’s work last year when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the awesome Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, a very funny novel that focused on a conniving engineer as he thwarted a massive army through guile, tricky and a substantial amount of BS.  Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City was an amazing read and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2019.  As a result, I have been eagerly keeping an eye out for any additional releases from Parker and was very excited when I saw that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It was coming out.  I was especially intrigued when I learnt that this latest Parker novel was some form of sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, and I was very, very happy when I got my copy of this latest book.

This new novel from Parker proved to be an extraordinary read and it was easily one of the funniest novels of 2020.  The author writes a clever, fast-paced and addictive story that utilises the author’s unique sense of humour to create a very entertaining piece of literature.  This is a very enjoyable read, and fans of Parker’s work will love that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, continuing some of the great storylines from the prior book.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and it gets an easy five-star review from me.

Parker presents another brilliant and witty story for How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It that follows the adventures of another unlucky and jaded protagonist as he tries to survive the chaotic events unfolding around him.  Just like with Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, this novel is written purely from the perspective of the protagonist as he chronicles his actions and personal history into a historical text.  This results in a very fast-paced and hilarious story, as the main character bounces from one bad situation to another, encountering plotters, ambitious politicians, angry crime bosses, dangerous invaders and one particular fierce actress who serves as Notker’s leading lady.  I absolutely loved the various outrageous and challenging situations that the protagonist finds himself in, and Parker does a fantastic job presenting them in a humorous way, showing how silly everything is and the various, clever and well-written solutions to these problems.  The entire story goes in some very fun and compelling directions and this ends up being an overall excellent narrative that is extremely well written.  I was able to predict the overall conclusion of the story somewhat in advance, but Parker did an amazing job setting it up and it resulted in a very entertaining and satisfying conclusion.  This was such an amazing story and I had an absolute blast getting through it, laughing my head off the entire time.

As part of this awesome and entertaining story, Parker sets up a whole new protagonist for this novel, Notker the liar.  Notker is another fun protagonist in a similar vein to the main character of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, in that he is a self-serving and opportunistic individual who is mostly looking out for his own wellbeing.  This changes once he takes on the assignment of impersonating the dim-witted but charismatic Lysimachus and soon finds himself responsible for the safety of the city.  While at first he is mostly trying to survive and find a way to escape from all the insanity and backstabbing that is his life, once he becomes more aware of the situation facing the City and the danger it is really in he begins to take on more responsibility, manipulating everyone so that they can start fighting a more effective war.  I really liked seeing this protagonist attempt to take control of the situation surrounding the City, especially as he appears to be one of the only sane people around.  Watching his various incredulous reactions to the problems presented to him and his various solutions, which are a combination of common-sense responses and brilliant but out-there tactics, is really entertaining.  I especially loved how Parker played up the actor/screenwriter aspect of the character as many of his greatest tricks are derived from theatre techniques, such as selling something to a crowd, misdirection or the value of good lighting.  There is also a great underlying aspect to the character as he pretends to be Lysimachus and he needs to strike a balance between responses that Lysimachus would have done and his own common sense and craftiness.  This compulsion to act like Lysimachus actually becomes a major problem for Notker as he enjoys being the heroic former gladiator and soon begins emulating him instead of acting in his usual manner of self-preservation.  All of this results in another complex and likeable central character who the reader cannot help but root for as he attempts to survive.  I really liked how Notker’s story progressed and it was a real joy to read about him from start to finish.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about this book was the way in which it acts as a fantastic and humorous follow-up to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled CityHow to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is set in the same city as the author’s 2019 release, and the story begins a few years after the events of this proceeding novel.  This new novel mostly presents a new story, told from the perspective of a different protagonist, but it does have a lot of connections to the previous novel.  The individual Notker is impersonating, Lysimachus, was a side character in the first novel, serving as a bodyguard to the original protagonist.  In this book it is revealed that following Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, Lysimachus, a champion gladiator and a revered public figure, was given all the credit for the original protagonist’s efforts following his death.  Parker does a fantastic job revealing this to the reader, and it is extremely fitting in the scope of the first novel as this original protagonist was always getting overshadowed and overestimated.  The author makes sure to really drive this point home by completely excluding the name of the previous protagonist throughout How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, just to emphasise how no one in the city truly remembers who he was or what he did, which is pretty darn hilarious.  The novel contains a number of fantastic references to the events that occurred with the previous book, including giving Notker a copy of the previous protagonist’s memoirs (which formed the basis of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City).  Notker of course then provides his own witty two cents to this memoir, providing a writer’s critical analysis, including doubting some of the events that occurred, such as the coincidence around the protagonist being the childhood friend of the mastermind of the siege.  All of this definitely adds a lot to the book’s overall humour, and it is always entertaining to see an author make fun of his own work.

Despite these fun references and the continuation of some story elements from Parker’s previous book, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is very much its own novel, taking the reader on a whole new fun adventure.  As a result, you really do not need to have read Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City first, although it is a lot of fun to see the previous book’s events lampooned in this novel.  Indeed, due to the fact that the protagonist and point-of-view character has no idea of the full events of the previous book, you get a good overview as everything is explained to him, which is fun.  Overall, this serves as a very entertaining sequel to this amazing previous book and I will be interested to see if Parker decides to continue the story in some way, which I have no doubt will be another incredible read.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a truly awesome and enjoyable read, and author K. J. Parker lived up to all my expectations with this book.  Not only does it contain a captivating and addictive narrative anchored by a likeable and complex main character, but it is also intensely funny.  I loved every second that I spent reading How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, and this was without a doubt one of the best books that I have read this year.

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.