By K.J. Parker



354pp/$16.99/August 2020

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It
Cover by Lauren Panepinto

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is set seven years after K.J. Parker's Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City. Ogus, who has now proclaimed himself emperor, is still laying siege to the City, which is being ruled by Nicephorous, Faustinus, and Artavasdus following Orhan's death in the previous novel. The book opens with the death of Lysimachus, Orhan's bodyguard who has become beloved by the citizens who attribute most of Orhan's successes to the brash former gladiator from the City's Themes. Taking a page from novels like Robert A. Heinlein's Dougle Star or Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda, this triumvirate brings in Notker, an actor who has made a career out of imitating Lysimachus, to pretend to be him and help maintain the citizen's morale in the face of a seven year siege.

Initially the pawn of the trio that Notker refers to the the Conspirators, he eventually begins to take on more than just the trapping sof the role, partly in an attempt to make the situation for the City better, but mostly in order to ensure that he isn't discarded when his usefulness as a figurehead is over. At the end of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, Parker included a final couple of pages warning the reader about trusting Orhan's account too much, and the same can be said for How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, in which the narrator, Notker, is referred to as "the Liar," due to his profession as an actor. Parker is very clear that his narrators are more interested in telling a good story than they are about being entirely truthful in relating the facts of what happens, which raises intriguing questions about the concept of an objective truth within the confines of fiction. Similarly, Parker includes an off=handed statement indicating that Notker has read Orhan's book, perhaps being unique in providing a protagonist who has read the same book in the series as the reader.

Despite having a different narrator, the novel has the same light tone as the first book in the series. Whereas Orhan was an engineer who knew how to get things done, though, Notker is aware of himself as a fraud, practically a conman within the context of his situation. He makes use of people who he knows he can trust, including the captain of the guards, who he calls Very, and, to a lesser degree, the actress Hodda, who takes on the role of his empress. Despite acknowledging that he is merely an actor in the role, he also realizes that he must treat it as much as possible as Lysimachus would in the same situation and he attempts to do what he can for the City. However, while the siege had pretty much become routine for both sides, Notker manages to create a hot war situation and he must figure out a way to stop Ogus' besieging troops from entering the City.

As the story progresses and Notker gets in deeper, the stakes also rise higher. Ogus' attacks on the City intensify and Notker takes on more of the characteristics of a warlord such as ordering attacks on civilian targets. Hodda, who is one of the few people who knows his true identity, attempts to rein in his worst impulses and, at the same time, pushes for the two of them to flee the City for safety, with, of course, a large part of the City's treasure to help them ensure that safety. Although Notker agrees with leaving the town, at least in theory, he has a hard time stepping away, blaming it on his need to do his duty as Lysimachus would see fit. Notker's continuous playing of the role of Lysimachus raises questions about both identity and motivation. Is Notker doing what he is doing because he honestly believes is it what Lysimachus would do or is he allowing the role he has taken on get the better of him.

While How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It doesn't have the same threat of immediate danger that exists in much of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, it does permit Parker to explore a different state of the same siege, showing how things can change internally while they appear to be the same externally. Although the book ends with Ogus' forces still laying siege to the City, the situation has changed entirely through the mechanizations of Notker, no matter what his motivations are. Just as Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City can be read on its own and enjoyed without continuing, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It stands on its own and doesn't feel like part of a trilogy, although the meta-story Parker is building up around the trilogy clearly makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Purchase this book

Amazon BooksOrder from Amazon UK




Audio book

Return to