Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K. J. Parker
Orbit, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
This is the only surviving record of the Great Siege of the City, the capital of the Robor Empire, in the words of Orhan, Colonel-in-Chief of the Engineers.
The Robor Empire is under attack. Someone has confounded their navies, killed the City’s soldiers, and destroyed most of the empire’s resources. But taking the City will not be that easy because the Engineers are still around, under the command of Orhan, an ex-slave, a talented engineer with a chip on his shoulder. Orhan resents the Robor, looks down on them and their naive superiority complex, but when it comes to the City, to the people inside it, Orhan identifies with them. While his first reaction is to run, defending the City is a duty he can’t let go. Orhan is the only thing between the Robor Empire and destruction, and he would give anything for it to be otherwise.
The premise of this story is an interesting one. The capital of a nation of invaders is under attack and the only person with enough loyalty to protect it, is one of the invaded. When the elite and the soldiers are gone, and there are only ‘normal’ people left to protect their home, the face of warfare is changed forever. Orhan has a unique approach to defending the City, utilising the skills and talents of the people left behind.
The story starts hard and fast with an attack on a port, then there’s a lull as the military and naval arms of the Empire are picked off piecemeal and Orhan starts to build his defence. Approximately halfway through there is some actions and then it slows again until all the action at the end. There are also large sections given over to history, which flesh out the world but at times felt like an information dump. This change of pace confused me, and yet it was still enjoyable because of Orhan.
Orhan’s voice is strong and clear throughout. He is unapologetically anti-authority, showing up those in power over him because he knows he is more intelligent than those around him. In that respect, it reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s Guards series where Orhan is Vimes, understanding how the City works and that it has nothing to do with the people in charge. He even has his own version of Carrot, a naïve but intuitive second in command.
Despite the humour that runs through Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, there is a serious side, and the description of the warfare, the impact of siege weapons on a person’s body, is chilling. Orhan’s dry humour drops away, becoming raw with emotion and regret of the impact of his decisions. He is not a soldier after all, he’s just a man.
From the beginning, Orhan explains that one of the reasons he is so disliked is the colour of his skin. He is a “milkface”, pale compared to the Robor, and he comes from a conquered nation. In fact, Orhan has been captured and repurposed a number of times before the Robor. He, above everyone else, should hate the City and open the doors to let the attackers in. But he doesn’t because what makes a citizen is not the colour of their skin or where they were born, but what they put into their home. Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a tale of loyalty and respect, of innovation and resourcefulness, in a vibrant fantasy world both witty and intelligent. It takes you on the ups and downs on warfare and the pitfalls of command.