HOW TO RULE AN EMPIRE AND GET AWAY WITH IT by K.J.Parker. Review.

HOW TO RULE AN EMPIRE AND GET AWAY WITH IT by K.J.Parker

Orbit p/b £8.99

Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson

This is a superb tale made all the more agreeable by the narrator drawing the reader in from the very start by deploying the second person singular, setting the reader up as a co-conspirator to the events related at length in entertaining detail.

The narrator is Notker, a sometime-actor, occasional playwright and professional mimic who plies a vicarious living from the stage in the former imperial city of Robur. The problem that Robur has is that it is being besieged by a huge army under the leadership of Ogus, who has organised all the former subject nations of Robur into a rebellious coalition against their former, hated masters. The city survives as an independent entity because it retains access to the sea and can import its daily needs.

Whilst Notker is on his way to an event where he intends to impersonate Lysimachus, the First Citizen of Robur, the house in which the entertainment is due to take place is destroyed by a large stone cast by a besieging trebuchet. What he does not know is that the real Lysimachus was already in the house.

Not long after, Notker finds himself being interviewed by the other three men of the cabal that runs the city and they force him to play the part of Lysimachus in their management of the city population. Lysimachus was a former gladiator whose popularity had made him a leading personality in the city, thus legitimising this particular group of rulers in the eyes of the criminal Themes who were the true masters of the city streets. Any parallels with Ancient Rome are purely deliberate. 

Then this cabal is overthrown by another group based in The Senate. Their leader, refusing to accept Notker’s plea that he is not Lysimachus, insists that Notker takes on the vacant role of Emperor as Lysimachus to help abolish the Themes. Notker reluctantly undertakes coronation having first conscripted his former girl-friend, Hodda, a theatrical impresario, to be his empress. She is underwhelmed at this prospect. Notker turns the table on the ruling senators by not abolishing the Themes but uniting them under himself. Then there is another coup d’etat which still requires Lysimachus to legitimise it.

By this time, Notker has the bit between his teeth, and he begins to lead the city as its emperor. He sets up his own bureaucracy and takes a leading role in the military with some small success. He realises that in due time the city will fall to Ogus and begins to form plans to escape before this happens. Fortunately, in her previous role, Hodda had met Ogus and by a complicated route arranges the possibility of a truce. In the interim Notker is prosecuting the war through an aggressive form of defence. This brings Ogus to a negotiating table where he refuses to accept that Notker is Lysimachus having previously met him. These talks fail fundamentally.

Notker then performs a brilliant military and political coup-de-main in a style reminiscent of the late Mao Tse Tung. He changes expectations of the city population, evacuates them to safety and abandons the ruins to Ogus and his men. In no time Ogus loses his support and Notker moves on elsewhere.

This complex tale is presented as both a narrative and a conversation with the reader. It has a compelling quality which is rare in the fantasy genre. This is a seriously good book.