Author: K. J. Parker
Publication Date: April 9, 2019
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 384 (350 + Extras)
Rating: 3 of 5 Stars
I was sent a copy of this book for review by the publisher.
When I first saw Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City I was intrigued. Before this I’d never read anything by K.J. Parker and honestly didn’t know much about him. Somehow I’ve been living under a rock because he’s written a crap ton of books either under this name or as Tom Holt, and more than one twitter/blog follower commented how much they loved his books. The premise was one I was instantly drawn to, a medieval siege with little hope for success; a city whose defenses are led by an engineer not a regular army commander. And this colonel of engineers is a “liar and a cheat” who has issues with authority? Add to that the medieval themed cover design by Lauren Panepinto (I’m a sucker for cool covers) and well of course I wanted to read it.
“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.”
The book is introduced as a narrative history set down by Orhan in the manner of medieval histories.
“Orhan son of Siyyah Doctus Felix Praeclarissimus, his history of the Great Siege, written down so that the deeds and sufferings of great men may never be forgotten.”
The narrative follows Orhan’s account of events leading up to the siege and during, in which he is both an observer of and later primary actor in the action. As the blurb above indicates, the capital city of a great empire has come under siege by an unknown force. Orhan and his men find themselves inside the city and due to specific circumstances are the only real military presence to be found. The army and most of the civilian leadership is gone or unable to come to the relief of the city. They must organize a defense and wait, hoping for a miracle and someone to lift the siege. If that doesn’t happen, well they are on their own.
“According to the books (there’s an extensive literature on the subject) there are fifteen ways to defend a walled city. You can try one of them and, if that doesn’t work…What the books don’t tell you is, there’s a sixteenth way. You can use it when you’ve got nothing; no stuff, no men, and nobody to lead them. Apart from that it’s got nothing to recommend it whatsoever.”
The story itself a good one. The action starts immediately with a pirate raid on a naval depot (I don’t feel i’m giving too much away here as this is the first chapter). After a number of mysterious raids like this the narrative shifts to the appearance of an army before the capital city and the siege begins. Parker keeps you turning pages with well written action scenes alternating between narrative building siege defense planning and flashback episodes.
Parker keeps you guessing for most of the book about just who it is who’s come to attack the City. The make-up of the forces and who is leading them remains a mystery for the characters as well as the reader and adds a level of tension to the story that keeps it interesting as Orhan attempts to guess his opponent’s intentions in order to defend against them.
The various ways Orhan comes up with to defend the city and counterattack in an effort to keep his opponents at bay also keep you wanting more. I mean that’s what the book purports to be about right? I didn’t track how many ways he actually uses to defend the city and don’t know that it was actually sixteen, but Parker runs the gamut of siege-craft and defense methods in telling the story. None of it was surprising or totally unexpected but it made the read enjoyable.
While I enjoyed the story as a whole and it kept me interested throughout, there were some aspects of it that felt a little bit of a stretch for me. Specifically it was the way things just always just seemed to work out perfectly for whoever needed it at that moment in the narrative. At times it was the pirates or other opposing forces who managed to pull off some great feat perfectly, and at other times Orhan and his crew managed to make a nearly perfect defense or counterattack no matter how outmatched they may have been. I know it’s fantasy and it wouldn’t be a story if things didn’t just work out perfectly sometimes but it just seemed to happen a little more than I was willing to suspend my disbelief for.
Writing And Pacing
The narrative is told from a first person point of view, that of Orhan, a colonel of engineers in the imperial service. It’s really designed like a medieval history, one written by Orhan to chronicle his deeds and the events of the Great Siege as a witness to, and participant in them from beginning to end. This style was a great way to tell the story especially as it hearkens back to actual medieval histories told in this vein (even if the language and style here is much more modern).
The pacing was good. Not too slow and not too fast. Parker keeps it pretty steady throughout. There’s enough action to keep you hooked and wondering what’s coming next, and enough dialogue and scene development to keep you immersed.
My biggest complaint with the writing in this novel was the use of modern anachronisms. This is a story taking place in a medieval setting and there were just a few too many modern words and phrases for my liking. For instance very early in the book Parker refers the “field operations manual.” I could very well be wrong but a field manual (as Parker describes it) doesn’t seem like something that came about until much later. Later when discussing arrow production the process is described as “quality controlled.” At another point a soldier is described as having paid “cash” for his commission. These are just a few examples but they are sprinkled throughout. I know an argument can be made that we’d never want to read a novel written in truly medieval language and usage and that most of the language read in fantasy is an anachronism, but these just really stood out to me. They felt off enough to throw me while reading and interrupted he flow. Others may not mind so much.
The protagonist is Orhan and he exists on pretty much every page as this is a first person narrative. Orhan is witty, sarcastic, and irreverent. He’s an outsider, a former slave, not an actual citizen of the empire, but from one of the conquered lands. He’s risen through the ranks however to become a colonel of engineers so he has skills and abilities, both technical and in leadership that the empire finds useful. Yet he seems to upset most everyone he comes into contact with. In part because he’s a “milkface” (a derogatory term to refer to his racial/ethnic origins), and in part because he’s a smart ass and has an attitude everyone around him hates.
“I fuck up good advice by giving it.”
All in all Orhan is fun to read. Throughout the book we learn about his past through events that are happening in the present. It’s the revelations of his past, teased little by little that hit upon his motivations in the present, chief among them being why as an outsider whose people have been mistreated by the empire would he want to defend the City against against the besieging force? Why not open the gates and let the empire fall?
There are numerous other characters in the novel. They include officers in Orhan’s regiment, the few leaders remaining in the city, the daughter of Orhan’s deceased friend who owns a tavern, leaders of the Blues and Greens (factions within the City), Orhan’s bodygaurd, and the leader of the opposing army who remains a mystery for much of the book. They all play parts in the story of varying degrees of import. The only problem is I didn’t seem to care about most of them (one or two exceptions aside). That’s probably because they were all pretty much one dimensional characters. They each serve one purpose and basically one purpose only. You do get a feel for some very basic motivations but almost none of these characters are really fleshed out. This may be due in part to it being Orhan’s first person narrative so we’re only seeing things from his perspective, but I was still disappointed. They also have no real character development or character arc. They are the same person from beginning to end.
The same can be said for Orhan as well. There isn’t much development or arc to his story. I suppose you could say his arc comes from the various revelations of his past that speak to his current motivations, and there may be something to that. But in the present there’s not real development or arc. This major event that he’s thrust in the middle of doesn’t really change him. He’s much the same man at the end of the story as he is at the beginning, a man devoted to duty just now on a larger stage.
I also have mixed feelings about the ending. I won’t say much about it as I don’t want to give it away, but it felt like a let down for me even if I get what Parker was going for with it. In the end i didn’t feel like it provided closure to the story or the characters.
I was a little disappointed with the world building in this book and I’m still trying to decide if I’m missing the point. The story is set within the Robur empire. There are a number of conquered nations existing within that empire and others at the periphery. It has a feel like ancient Rome or medieval Byzantium. Parker even uses latin names and language to refer to people and things (though Greek would be more appropriate for Byzantium). There is mention of opposing kingdoms but none seem to be much of a threat at the outset. Oh and there are pirates…pirates are always fun.
The problem for me though was that the internal world building felt off. For instance the capital city of the empire, the one Orhan and his men have come to defend is simply referred to at the City. It took me a while to realize this as there are other cities named in which Orhan visits early in the book and for the longest time I thought they were the capital and Parker was just using “the City” to refer to one of them in a different way. But no, we never learn the name of the City. It just seemed odd.
We also don’t get much information about the rest of the world. Don’t get me wrong there is some description of lands outside and within the empire, but it’s fairly minimal. This may be due to the fact that the City and the siege are the focus of the novel but as the story progresses it becomes evident that those lands have more importance to the overall story. I will say however that within the City itself Parker does a good job of relating the various factions and social stratification that exist within its walls as well as how different wards and districts come together.
Then there was the way people were described. Orhan is constantly referred to as a “milk face” for his paler skin color. I got that and it made sense. But the Robur are described on one hand as blue skinned and later they are described as having brown or dirt colored skin. I couldn’t quite grasp the dual descriptions unless I just totally missed something. But these descriptions were used multiple times. I was just confused the entire time by this even if the only point I needed to take away from it was that people looked upon others as different because of their skin tone and national origin. Ultimately the color didn’t matter as much as the fact of the matter, but the competing descriptions kept throwing me.
I don’t know if this review came off as more negative than positive and if it did I apologize as it’s not my intent. I liked this book. I just didn’t love it. It was a fun read and I don’t regret the time I spent with it. At the same time it isn’t one that made made a big impact on me. I didn’t hate the characters but I didn’t love them either. The story was good but not riveting like many others I’ve read lately. In the end, if you’r a fantasy fan you should like it and you shouldn’t regret your time with it either.