Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J.Parker
This is the story of Orhan, son of Siyyah Doctus Felix Praeclarissimus, and his history of the Great Siege, written down so that the deeds and sufferings of great men may never be forgotten.
A siege is approaching and the city has little time to prepare. The people have no food and no weapons, and the enemy has sworn to slaughter them all.
To save the city will take a miracle, but what it has is Orhan. A colonel of engineers, Orhan has far more experience with bridge-building than battles, is a cheat and a liar, and has a serious problem with authority. He is, in other words, perfect for the job.
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is quite a different book and I absolutely loved it. In some ways it is like a practical application of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War because the telling of the story relies on strategy, forethought, knowing one’s enemy and intelligent application of the techniques of battle rather than anything decidedly heroic or magical. Orhan can do more with a mile of rope, a bucket of nails and some support beams stolen from an old church than most men can do with a whole army. He knows this and also knows his story lacks the glorious elements of most heroic adventures so he’s telling it himself and no doubt spicing it up a little for us the readers.
He is a fantastic character with a bone dry sense of humour, a heart and soul that force him to make hard decisions however unpleasant, the nuance and humility to deal with people of different classes; and talk about being perfect for the job. I love a reluctant hero as much as the next person but there is also something incredibly satisfying as seeing the exact man for the job get the actual job, especially when the circumstances dictate anyone who may try and take over his job because of wealth, position etc is not around to do so.
“I’m an engineer, I told myself. People bring me problems and I fix them. I’m an engineer; my answer to any and every problem is a gadget, a trick, a device. I don’t consider the politics or the ethics. If a bridge needs to be built, I rig something up with logs and ropes. If the system is so hopelessly fucked that I can’t get pay or supplies for my men, I manufacture coins and seals. If the City is threatened with a fate it richly deserves, I modify and improve catapults, improvise armour out of bed linen, manufacture, sorry, forge (both senses of the word) new communities – fake ones, naturally, authorised by a fake seal. I fix broken people with things; with tricks, lies, and devices. I’m resourceful and ingenious. I don’t confront. I avoid; and one of the things I do my best to avoid is justice, and another one is death”.
I loved the intense focus on the aforementioned elements and the absence of distracting romantic or political subplots. It’s a tight and exciting story based on logic, clever ideas and wit and it moves at a tumultuous pace.
There is some nice discussion about identity and racism as Ohran, referred to as a ‘milk-face’ lives and works among a systemically superior race known as the Robur who have blue faces. Though he is a respected engineer with friends and men of both races there are places he cannot go and people he cannot speak to simply because of the colour of his skin. At one point after a particularly brilliant counter move that turns the enemy back he is unrecognisably filthy and goes to wash himself where he is chastised by a blue for using a ‘blue only’ fountain. His instant and instinctual response to completely accept his lower social rank despite being the only thing stopping the death of every man woman and child in the castle spoke volumes about the sort of dehumanization he had become accustomed to when he had every right to kick that guy in the balls and wash his own in that damn fountain.
I for one hope that a few more volumes of Orhan’s memoirs survived destruction and will one day be uncovered. It’s a unique viewpoint from which to watch a siege and I’d be incredibly interested to see how he would do in a less fortified position like being caught in transit as well as possibly being forced to lead an attack.
I'd highly recommend Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City for lovers of fantasy and military stories and to anyone looking for something to mix up their TBR list. As a stand alone at roughly 350 pages it asks very little but delivers so damn much and I'm grateful for receiving an ARC from the publishers.