Book Review: Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, by K.J. Parker

I’m a sucker for a good siege story.

Helm’s Deep, Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13– anything about a ragtag group of characters holed up against an overwhelming foe. It’s compelling to have characters who just don’t have enough of, well, anything. Ammunition, food, water, time. It’s an easy way to put conflict into a story.

I actually happen to be in Houston at the moment, which means I can identify with somebody holed up with dwindling supplies a bit too much. For the record, I’m fine. Got power back a couple days ago, and the pantry’s pretty well stocked. Really the only thing I can complain about is that I’m smelling a bit rank since I haven’t done laundry in over a week, but lucky for you, dear reader, this is the internet and you don’t nave to smell me.

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And in another bit of, uh, ‘serendipity,’ I picked up K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City before the power went out. So at least I had something to read (not counting my ever growing to-read pile. Shut up). I also got a couple of other books read, and hopefully I’ll get around to reviewing them, uh … soon? Maybe?

So yeah. K.J. Parker is a pseudonym of author Tom Holt– I get the impression he uses the Parker name for his more ‘serious’ stuff. Though with this said Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City isn’t exactly grimdark, either. The book’s narrated in first person perspective, in the snarky words of Ohran, a colonel of engineers, as he describes how he and his outnumbered command wind up the only defenders of The City against a vastly superior force.

Technically, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a fantasy novel, as it involves people with swords chasing each other around made-up lands with made-up names. The setting itself is … vaguely reminiscent of the Roman Empire, in that it’s a big sprawling bureaucracy with lots of engineering knowhow (they’ve got a Hippodrome, even), or maybe it’s a bit more inspired by Byzantium, given some of the other elements. Either way, the book is decidedly lacking in elves, wizards, or dragons– it’s a more ‘grounded’ sort of fantasy.

Really, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City reminded me less of a generic Tolkien homage, and more of Andy Weir’s The Martian. It’s kind of a ‘problem fiction,’ in that the main arc of the story is ‘oh shit, we have a problem, time to think of a way to fix it.’ And, being what it is, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is less concerned with the derring-do of holding a breached wall, and more about the engineering needed to prevent that wall from being breached in the first place. Ohran is an engineer, and therefore he solves his problem like an engineer, coming up with all kinds of clever ideas. Siege engines are built, sapping trenches (and countertrenches) are dug, and so on. Though with the engineering focus, there’s not as much ‘personal’ stuff with supplies slowly dwindling and people getting hungrier and what have you.

It’s not as dry as it sounds, honest. Ohran is an entertaining narrator, and unlike The Martian, he actually has other charcters to play off of. This said, most of the other characters come off as a little bit flat. Some of them have potential for more depth, at least, it’s just that since everything’s from Ohran’s perspective, they don’t get as much focus, I guess?

Still, the ‘X problem is solved with Y clever solution’ is a solid formula, and Parker is a skilled enough author to keep the plot moving forward at a page-turning pace. Like, I probably would’ve devoured this book in just a few days even if I did have electricity.

While entertaining, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City isn’t a perfect novel. For one, there’s only three female characters of any note– though one could argue that’s three more than a lot of earlier fantasy books. Likewise, the plot takes something of a melodramatic turn in the last third or so, when the identity and motives of the besieging army is revealed.

What’s a little bit more eyebrow-quirk-worthy is the fact that one of the book’s major themes is racism. See, the Empire of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is ruled by a darker-skinned Robur people, with lighter-complexioned “milkfaces” like Ohran as second-class citizens. There’s even a bit where Ohran gets yelled at for drinking from the wrong public fountain, even in the middle of a siege. On the one hand, this kind of thing goes to illustrate how stupid and arbitrary racism is in the real world. On the other, I’m not quite sure if a random English fantasy author is really the best guy to address this sort of thing. Especially when “what if white people were really the victims here?” can be a real tricky theme to write about.

Then again, the fantasy-racism thing always takes a backseat to the more interesting bits about catapults and siege tunnels and what have you. At heart, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an entertaining, readable adventure, even if it’s not quite as hard-hitting or thought provoking as the best fantasy novels coming out these days. There’s at least a sequel, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It, which I’ll probably get around to reading at some point. And heck, wanting to read more means the author’s done something right, y’know?

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