By K.J. Parker



350pp/$15.99/April 2019

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City
Cover by Lauren Panepinto

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

K.J. Parker opens a new trilogy with Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, a title which would seem more appropriate for one of the novels published under his Tom Holt byline. The narrator and protagonist is Colonel Orhan, a member of a subjugated race serving in the Imperial army as the head of an engineering company. Orhan has all the competencies he needs to be successful in his life and only tangentially considers himself part of the military. On top of that, he has more than a fair amount of larceny in his heart. His goals in life include building things and being left to his own devices. When he comes across the slaughtered remains of the army that garrisoned the Imperial capital, though, his life took a major turn.

Leading his men into the besieged city, Orhan uses his knowledge of construction to help shore up the city's defenses. Upon his discovery that the aging emperor is also ailing following the loss of his heirs, Orhan grabs the imperial seal and seizes command of the city, despite being part of an ethnic group that is generally looked down upon by the Imperial citizens. Using all the resources of the city and helping to forge a temporary and uneasy alliance between factions, Orhan works to increase the amount of time before the besieging army will ultimately break through the walls and murder everyone within. It takes all of his charisma, friendships, and ability as a con man to hold everything together, along with an amazing amount of luck and coincidence.

The city and empire that Orhan must save appears to be based on a mix of Rome and Constantinople, with a religion that takes aspects of Christianity, but certainly isn't (at one point, Orhan discusses a failed sect that is clearly Christianity). As in Constantinople, social life in the capital is built around support of one of two Themes who fight in the arenas and provide social support for their fans/members throughout the city. Holding a place similar to organized crime as well, Orhan makes use of them to swell the ranks of the city's defenders and ensures that he on't have to deal with internal uprisings when trying to cope with the attacking (or even waiting) army. In addition, Orhan uses the poor and the scroungers to help make the city livable during the siege.

Orhan is able to comment great loyalty, not just from the men who serve under his command, but also from the city prefect, Faustinus, who sees Orhan's competence and realizes he is the city's best hope, from Sawdust, a female carpenter who is every bit as capable in her craft as Orhan is in his, and Aichma, the daughter of an old friend and tavern owner who Orhan feels a sense of responsibility for. These friends come together, some more grudgingly than others, to help provide Orhan with what he needs to save the city.

Although written in a breezy and lighthearted first person, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a more serious fantasy novel that the Holt books. Any humor in it arises naturally from the characters with a strong focus on what Orhan must do to save the city. Parker raises the question of loyalty, both to and from Orhan, repeatedly examining who, or what, Orhan feels loyal to when he is given the chance to rescue himself and his friends at the expense of the empire that has done so much to him. Furthermore, a two page afterward causes the reader to completely rethink the entire novel as Parker sets up for the second book in the series to be very different in nature.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an enjoyable and detailed look at a part of a fantasy world which often is only seen from the opposite side. If Parker ignores or downplays some of the more unsavory aspects of living in a city under siege, it goes along with the tenor of the story he is telling. In the end, when Parker sets up a potential way to tie in the first novel to the subsequent books in the series, he gives an indication that while in many ways this novel appears reasonably straight-forward, the trilogy as a whole will be a unique take on his fantasy world at war.

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