Review | Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City – K.J. Parker

About the Book

A siege is approaching, and the City has little time left to prepare. The people have no food and no weapons, and the enemy has sworn to slaughter them all.

Their only chance rests with a colonel of engineers – a despised outsider, a genius, a master of military and political strategy with the wrong color skin. He is the City’s only hope.

But nobody, rich or poor, wants to take orders from a jumped-up Milkface. Saving the City from itself might be more difficult than surviving the coming siege.

386 pages
Published on April 9, 2019
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This book was sent by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

“…as a wise man once said, the difference between luck and a wheelbarrow is, luck doesn’t work if you push it.”

I have put off reading this book. I didn’t want to do it. The reason isn’t what you probably expect. You see, K.J. Parker is my favorite author, and I always have issues when reading his books, because I don’t want them to end. The best way to keep a book from ending? Don’t start it. 

My logic is flawless. 

Anyway, I decided enough was enough. It was time for me to get a move on and read this book already. 

I personally think Parker’s strong suit as an author are his shorter works. His novellas never cease to amaze me, but I also love his novels. Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a novel in every respect, and I honestly think it’s probably one of his best published works to date. Everything I love about Parker is evident in this book, from his understated sarcasm, to his unique world, complex moral dilemmas, and that delightful gray area he loves to play around in so much. 

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is told via first person perspective by one Orhan. Orhan is an incredibly unreliable narrator, which Parker seems to excel at creating. In this sort of Byzantine-feeling world, the Robur people are the dominant ones, and Orhan basically is an outsider, the only “barbarian” or “milkface” of moderate rank in the Imperial army. This interesting tension between his Robur overlords and Orhan himself is very prominent throughout the book, and cleverly played upon. Orhan’s wit and sarcasm really serve him well, making him a rather caustic figure but also impossible to look away from. 

“Of the people, by the people, for the people. I can’t remember offhand where that quote comes from; it was something to do with some bunch of wild-eyed idealists overthrowing the tyrant so they could become tyrants themselves. No good will have come of it, you can be sure. The people; God help us.”

Orhan is an engineer, and through a series of really bad events, he has to figure out how to defend a city from an unknown invading enemy that is mercilessly laying waste to basically whatever they set their sights on. Calling upon all of his talent and wit, he makes all sorts of interesting contraptions to keep the city defensible. He does some pretty horrible things throughout the book which might make any reader who isn’t familiar with Parker balk, but it’s all part of who Orhan is, and part of Parker’s style. This whole thing where people do horrible things in the name of whatever is not new to this book. It’s sort of a forte of Parker’s, and I like to think it’s part of how he dabbles with issues of morality as he writes. 

As I’ve said above, Orhan is an unreliable narrator, and there are a few reasons for this. First, he is unashamedly out for himself. Whatever furthers him and his goals is just fine by him. He has no qualms with doing horrible things if they end up working toward his own desired end. Secondly, his public image is incredibly important to him, so he often tells stories through the lens of someone trying to sell his image to others. Think of him as a used car salesman. He’s both the salesman and the car in that particular scenario. While I tend to struggle with unreliable narrators, it’s mostly due to the writing of them. I think writing a really good unreliable narrator is extremely difficult, and Parker basically gives a masterclass on how to write one in this book. 

“The way I see it, the truth is just barren moorland, all useless bog and heather. It’s only when you break it up and turn it over with the ploughshare of the Good Lie that you can screw a livelihood out of it. Isn’t that what humans do? They take a dead landscape and reshape it into what they need, and want, and can use. I’ve never hesitated to adapt the world to suit me, when I can get away with it.” 

With all of Parker’s books, I tend to read them with one eye focused on the story, and the other eye focused on whatever he’s not saying. For example, there are parts of this book which distinctly reminded me of some current day, real world events. There are some parts that made me examine said events in a bit of a different light. Parker has a way with evening out the playing field, while caustically throwing shade at certain people/events/issues, and I really love that about him. His books work on multiple levels, and readers who enjoy trying to puzzle out cues and inferring things will probably really enjoy this one. There’s a lot here, from a story that’s just absolutely captivating and impossible to put down, to all those delightful layers that Parker works so well. 

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is set in a sort of Byzantine-ish empire which, as it happens, is the perfect place to set a siege. There isn’t a whole lot of worldbuilding here, but there doesn’t need to be. I think this book is more of a human story, set against a cityscape backdrop, steeped in empire. It’s more important that the people and ideas shine than the nuances of the larger world.

Parker knows what he’s talking about with all things military. Quite frankly, a lot of the details blew my mind. They were interesting and so intricate. Nothing is overlooked; no stone left unturned. While I’m not really a person who enjoys long, drawn out battles, that’s basically what this book is, and I ended up loving it. Partly because I was just fascinated by all these details, all this information that he so carefully inserted into his narrative, but also because, throughout the book, he’s sprinkled in these bits of wisdom and insight that just astounded me. So perfectly worded, with the ability to strike right to my soul and cut to the quick of any particular scene. This book tells a story, but it also, in some really unique Parker-esque way, shines a light onto conflict and the human condition. I didn’t really expect the marriage of all those elements to work as well as they did, but boy howdy, Parker really got all the cogs in this machine to work flawlessly. 

“Being, in my own small way, a part of Authority, it never ceases to amaze me how much people believe in it and trust it. I see it from the inside, of course—inefficiencies, stupidities, corruption, bloody-minded ignorance and simple lack of resources to cope with the magnitude of the endless, ever-multiplying problems. But other people see it from the outside. They see the Land Walls. They see the emperor’s head on the coins, with Victory on the reverse. They see the temples. They see soldiers in shining armour. They see, and they believe, that the empire is big, strong, wise, unbeatable.” 

The book was almost over as soon as I started reading it because it was impossible to put down. From the plot, to the prose, everything is *chef’s kiss*. Really, however, it was Orhan’s voice that was the icing on this particular cake. He’s one of the most unique narrators that I’ve come across in a while, with an unforgettable story to tell. He paints everything that happens in a cynical light, and still, I just couldn’t look away. He’s so incredibly, unashamedly human, and Parker shows all of him to his readers: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I’m sorry it took me so long to get to it, but I didn’t want it to end, so I decided it’s better to just not start it. Now, there’s another book out following this one and I’m halfway thinking I might turn a hundred before I get myself to read it. Parker is an author whose books I savor. I sip them slowly, and enjoy every word, every character, every nuance. I let them settle into my sinew and make a home in my bones. Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is amongst his best work. 

5/5 stars


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