Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City
by K.J. Parker
Fantasy | 384 Pages | Published by Orbit in 2019
Having never read a novel by K.J. Parker, it came as something of a surprise to discover I had no less than five of his books loitering on my bookshelf. In a bid to eliminate dust and finally discover what all the fuss was about, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City became the next book to be cleared from the decks.
With a cover as eye-catching as its eccentric title, the first in this unnamed series had me hooked from the moment of its dusty extraction. A tale of sieges, battles and bloody escapades and falling, almost always, on your feet, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a clever, action-packed and page-turning read that ended far too abruptly and far too soon.
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.
Orhan is an engineer, a bridge builder by trade and a colonel in the Robur army. When tales of pirate raids, slaughtered allies and a seemingly unstoppable enemy become unavoidable, Orhan turns his regiment to The City, the last bastion of the Robur.
But all is not as it seems.
The Robur army is all but lost, the naval fleet have disappeared, and the ruling elite have vanished without a trace. The people of The City stand on the precipice of disaster.
But hope is not lost – not while there is a sarcastic, lying Milkface to blunder his way to the top. Intelligent, uncertain and with more than a little luck on his side, Orhan inadvertently assumes control of the final stronghold of the empire.
The City’s salvation or its doom lie entirely at his feet.
The Robur rule a vast and uncompromising empire which stretches across the globe, absorbing different lands, peoples, and cultures into its fold. Indentured and little more than slaves, those that find themselves bending the knee must claw their way through a society which places value in the colour of skin and not a person’s worth.
But Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is not a story of empire, it is a tale of The City; a metropolis dominated by classism, racism and petty thuggery, where the elite rule the people and the Themes rule the streets. Gang warfare, gladiatorial battles, and gold reign supreme and are captured by Parker through Orhan’s frank observations of the world around him.
Narrated entirely in first-person, Orhan is a witty, self-deprecating protagonist who fumbles and blunders his way up the chain of command. His sharp wit and self-doubt play a leading role throughout the novel, culminating in unexpected successes, hapless disasters, and extraordinary moments of accidental genius.
While supporting characters never quite receive the flesh they deserve and female characters are somewhat scarce, Lysimachus, Orhan’s unwanted bodyguard and Aichma, his friend’s daughter, hint at more well-rounded character portrayals under the author’s belt – at least when not scrawled down by a bridge builder with delusions of grandeur.
Nevertheless, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a skilfully written novel with an excellent premise and a host of amusing characters. Parker also has the enviable knack of teasing a brilliant, eminently quotable paragraph in almost every chapter, which continue to rattle around my head as though Orhan were a sage.
But then we come to the end.
Through feats of engineering, tense stand-offs, and explosive battles, and fighting three hundred pages worth of impossible odds, Parker balances the reader on the precipice of something great…
…and then it’s all over.
Rudely torn from The City’s infernal bosom, the narrative concludes in a most unsatisfactory and abrupt way. Whether this was the intent of the author or whether he simply ran out of steam, the unexpected and hastily tied up ending was a sobering and somewhat disappointing experience. Though – it must be stated – I was not sorry to have been taken along for the ride.
Just shy of blundering excellence, this novel is a wonderful opening salvo into the works of an author with a flair for the anti-hero, and provides a fitting introduction to a series which promises the most motley crew of liars, cheats and thieves the empire has ever seen.
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a fast-paced novel full of interesting and imperfect characters whose somewhat lacklustre ending managed to knock Orhan’s five-star crown clean off.