Review: Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker is a historical fantasy published in 2019, the sequel to which is apparently out this month. Sixteen Ways is set in a secondary world that mirrors the Roman Empire (here called Robur) and has zero magic. The story is told from the point of view of Orhan, chief of the military engineers, who winds up in the unenviable position of defending the heart of the empire against a mysterious and powerful army.

This first-person POV of Orhan is a key feature. The plot, while fast-paced and exciting, plays second fiddle to this vivid character study of Orhan. The prose brims with Orhan's personality and presents a shining example of windowpane prose done right. In short, he's the best at his job, cynical and nihilistic, relentlessly smart-mouthed, and unscrupulous in his endeavours, yet he remains a very sympathetic character. The flawed genius is a character trope that crops up frequently in pop culture, and I was unsure if Orhan could stand out among the Sherlocks and Tony Starks. Perhaps it's just an innate magnetism that such characters possess when they're done well, but I found Orhan to be wonderfully engaging in his own way.

Orhan is confronted with problem after problem in the face of insurmountable odds, and it was immensely riveting to see him spin up his clever schemes and tactics. I found his internal struggles deeply affecting as well, and they add plenty of nuance and complexity to his character. The story is full of twists and turns, both in the external battle against the enemy army and in the ethical and moral quandaries Orhan finds himself floundering in.

There are few scenes of physical conflict, and you won't find any big, explosive battles or long, drawn-out duels. Instead, we follow Orhan as he re-jigs the entire infrastructure of the City to cope with the siege. I never thought I would be so thrilled by talk of numismatics, construction, or supply-chain management. It felt refreshing to read a fast-paced story that isn't fuelled by physical action. The warriors in this story that would otherwise hog the limelight in most epic fantasy take a back seat to Orhan the engineer.

Another place this book shines is in its grounding in history. My knowledge of ancient Rome doesn't extend very far past Mary Beard's SPQR (great read, by the way), but what little I know matches up with a lot of little details in Sixteen Ways. For example, the Robur Empire expanded its influence by actively assimilating other peoples; similarly, the Roman Empire grew so quickly in its early days by liberally granting citizenship to non-Romans.

The one thing I'm not a big fan of is the ending. I don't hate it, but there's something about its abruptness that bugs me. Parker attempts to use the first-person, unreliable narrator framing device to justify this somewhat. Overall it's not a big deal and it's still reasonably satisfying, so don't let that put you off from reading this wonderful book.

I haven't read the sequel yet, but Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City stands perfectly well on its own. If you like reading about a hyper-competent protagonist, if you like dry, snarky humour, and if you like historical fiction, I think you'll find this a very enjoyable read that offers so much more than just that.

Day 14 of #100DaysToOffload

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