Review: Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City

Posted: April 18, 2019 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: K.J. Parker, Fantasy, Humor

It’s been a good long while since I last read a K.J. Parker book, and he’s one of my favorites; so that’s kind of annoying. The most recent spate of story he pumped out prior to this book was the Two of Swords trilogy, which was originally released as a serial novel — meaning a small section at a time with oodles of sections. I wasn’t much into paying the exorbitant amount of money that serial novel would have cost me to get them all as they were e-published, so I put off purchasing them until they’d been happily compiled into three “books”. But, unfortunately, I’ve never gotten back to them. Need to rectify that, I know, but who has the time? Seriously. Maybe after Dark Age is finally out and my reading queue has settled down a bit.

SIXTEEN WAYS TO DEFEND A WALLED CITY (Amazon) is a stand-alone novel about the siege of the capital city of the Robur Empire. If you’re familiar with the works of this author, you’ll know that he loves to write stories about war, include loads of technical detail about engineering and forgery and coinage, and writes character that is so often just brilliant. I also happen to find his writing absolutely hilarious, which helps.

Orhan, is the colonel of a band of bridge-building engineers. They spend their lives, and the money of the empire, building bridges where they are needed. They travel much, build much, and really try their best to stay away from any actual fighting. Because, you see, Orhan is a coward. He also happens to be a liar and a cheater, and in common terms is sixteen ways not what you’d expect from a sympathetic main character. And yet his narration (explicitly accurate or not), about himself and his struggles to try and save the capital city from being destroyed by those that seek to see the Empire of the Robur crushed and eradicated from the world, is witty and sarcastic and darkly humorous in all the best ways. It never takes me more than a few pages to come across something that makes me chuckle, or guffaw, or stop and catch my breath as I laugh my guts out. I certainly spent my fair share of time laughing while ingesting this one.

The story is a “historical” account of the events surrounding the attack of the Robur Empire, as told by Orhan himself. An empire that has grown in size and prominence until it can barely contain itself. Despite Orhan’s best efforts to the contrary, the people surrounding him contrive to put him in such a position that there is no one else left to direct the defense of the city when an army comes knocking on their door. So he has to do it. And because there is no one else left, and the fact that he is so ridiculously practical about solving such problems, Orhan sets about to do exactly that.

Orhan - a cowardly engineer, leader of the bridge builders, and white-faced savage to boot - is left to orchestrate the defense of the Empire's capital city

This novel just flows really well. Pacing, world-building, character. One scene naturally leads into the next, and it’s ridiculously simple to find yourself reading past your deadlines. Whether they be set by you, someone else, or the setting of the sun. Past readers will notice plenty of easter eggs along the way as well. References abound from the single alternate world within which so many, if not all, of Parker’s tales are told. People and places and empires, histories. More and more he’s detailing an entire world, and the further I get into his books and his tales, the more realistic they all become. The level of familiarity I have with it all just makes it feel like the “more” that fantasy stories need to survive.

K.J. Parker books are some of the few non-speculative books I can read where I don’t find myself pining for something fantastical. Yes, they are technically fantasy, because they’re told in a made up world about made up people. There’s so very little of anything that you’d normally find in a more traditional fantasy book though. Things like dragons and magic and oodles of other made-up goodness. Just not there. Apparently he doesn’t believe in adding them to his stories, which normally I’d take umbrage with, but in this case am willing to give him fair license to write whatever he jolly well will.

There was actually only one thing that I felt this book was lacking — and some of my friends are going to get a huge kick out of this, because they’ve all talked to me about exactly this issue before — and that’s a decent ending. There was actually no kind of ending to this book, and honestly that kicked me in the face just a little bit. Still, as I mentioned in my previous review about still liking books where I enjoyed the read but the ending wasn’t all that hot, I can still say that I fully enjoyed reading this one. Granted, the “story” as it is, does come to some sort of a conclusion, but it’s a lot like the conclusion of Lord of the Flies, where everything just stops. You remember that one? Actually, that’s a pretty apt comparison, now that I think about it. Only I much preferred the details of the way this one stopped than that classic piece of literature.

If you’ve loved K.J. Parker’s stuff before, and like me can look past his frequent lackluster endings, this is very much a book that you will enjoy reading. It’s every bit the novel that I’ve come to expect from him. Her. Him. Ugh. Can you believe it? I still get that mixed up sometimes. This is a great example of the author’s work and really a fun read. Check it out.

  • Recommended Age: 16+
  • Language: Relatively mild, but infrequently strong
  • Violence: Pretty violent and gory in parts. This is, after all, the story of a war.
  • Sex: Several mild references


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