Quar Book Review: Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, by K. J. Parker

A world-spanning empire that has lasted for centuries is falling to a singular barbarian invasion, and only a lowly engineer from the visibly-wrong race stands in their way. Will he work with the people who enslaved him against the wild barbarians he originally hails from? Can he win?

While I was taken in by that kind of summary, I’ve got mixed feelings on this one now that I’ve read it.

To start with, the biggest beef a lot of folks have with this book is the ending; the book doesn’t conclude so much as it just stops. Recognizing that Parker is trying to recreate the unreliable narrator common to the few histories we have from the real medieval era, many of which cut off before the to-us epochal events they were writing about actually wrapped up, I kinda… enjoyed the conceit.

The book is basically a riff on a siege of fake Constantinople where everything goes right for the besiegers and very little goes right for the besieged, except it always does, but at the very last minute. Make sense? Lotta deus ex machinas abounding, but they’re explained via the agency of the main guy, so it’s somehow not grossly egregious.

That’s what the book is about; effectively, an EXTREMELY thin scrum of fiction is overlaid a bunch of vastly-simplified Byzantine history and told via the viewpoint of this foreign defender of The City. Various examples from real history of specific military advances and surprises are woven into the story of the siege. A loose and ill-defined gathering of secondary characters help the protagonist, Orhan, move the plot along. There are a few musings about love and the nature of prejudice that aren’t worth interrogating at any length. The story doesn’t conclude so much as it just stops. I stopped reading a few times on my way through, because, while I’m a sucker for Byzantine(-ish) historical tales, it’s such a THINLY-drawn book. There’s no depth to anything.

And yet… I grabbed the loose sequel, which I’m taking is supposed to be somewhat like Procopius’ Secret History of Justinian? IE, the same series of events but told through a wildly different perspective? Not sure, but that seems to be the take from the jacket.

Honestly, I think folks familiar with Procopius’ thing will get the most out of this book; if you go in expecting a straight low-fantasy tale, you will probably be disappointed. If you take it as a modern-language early medieval history, with all the myth-making and twisting of facts to serve an image those chronicles entailed, I’m guessing you’ll like it more. Like I said, it never grabbed me fully like really good books do and I’ll probably never go back to it, but I did finish it, was engaged at the end, and am genuinely curious what Book Two’s take is going to be.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s