This book was sent to me by Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review.
09.04.19 / Orbit Books / Epic Fantasy / Paperback / 365pp / 978-0356506746
Target Audience: Readers who like a more tactical, creative and intense novel with plenty of interesting and relevant themes. Fantasy but more like a POV account of one of histories most ambitious defences.
About Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City
K. J. Parker’s new novel is the remarkable tale of the siege of a walled city, and the even more remarkable man who had to defend it.
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 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.
My Review of Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City
“I have strong views about not tempting providence and, as a wise man once said, the difference between luck and a wheelbarrow is, luck doesn’t work if you push it” P19
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when sitting down to start Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City. Classed as fantasy but with strong vibes of historical fiction, I went in with my mind wide open. I was rewarded with a high stakes narrative that was equal measures intelligent, witty and intense. This story of a lone, outcast engineer stepping up and saving a city that others easily abandoned was clever, precisely delivered and intriguingly addictive.
Using every crumb of his understanding of construction, commerce, politics, human nature and war tactics to save as many as he can from total annihilation. And at the same time RJ Barker taking the opportunity to delve into race and class prejudices that inevitably plague every society, and the decision to let that treatment affect your own treatment of others, just elevated this novel to another level. Sixteen Ways To Save A Walled City was an unexpected thrill that immediately captured my attention and held it all the way to the chaotic final pages.
This account of the Great Siege is told from the perspective of Orhan, Chief of the Engineers, and details how he and the residents of the city attempts to save the lives of everyone still there when the enemy reached the gates. Orhan is a builder of bridges but when he finds himself accidentally thrust into the seat of leadership after acting to save the city, Orhan must do everything he can to keep everyone safe, even from themselves. According to Orhan there are fifteen successful ways to defend a walled city, but with barely any food, money, equipment, soldiers, weapons or morale, he must think of a sixteenth way pretty damn quick.
Juggling rivalling factions that exist within the city, crafting new innovative defences, paying everyone their dues, crossing bureaucratic lines, being the guy everyone hates but relies on and lying to everyone to keep the idea of defiance against an army of skilled warriors and pirates 150,000 plus strong alive is tough work but Orhan has a few tricks up his sleeve. Orhan seems to have extraordinary luck when it comes to enemies.
“My belief is, either you understand things or you understand people. Nobody can do both. Frankly, I’m happier with things. I understand stuff like tensile strength, shearing force, ductility, work hardening, stress, fatigue. I know the same sort of things happen with people, but the rules are subtly different. And nobody’s ever paid for my time to get to know about people”. P140
Orhan is a complex, duplicitous individual who sees the world as an engineers playground. Everything can be moved, measured, reassembled, re-purposed and adapted. Everyone can be reassigned, reorganised, bought, manipulated and reassured. I thought his view on situation was inspired and I loved looking at the world through an engineer’s eyes. How tactical, measured and logical it all was. I found Orhan’s attitude, decisions and his observations about the world around him so satisfying, amusing yet there was a deeper feeling of hurt about how the world has treated him. I was captivated by his efforts and it was easy to invest myself in his plight.
It is hard to describe what genre Sixteen Ways is and I like it that way. It reads like a historical account of a far away land but it is much more than that. RJ Barker has included many different elements to this tale that would excite a wide array of readers. The narrative is far more strategic, mechanical and rational than it is fantastical though. The imagery had that fantasy twinge to it though and it was incredibly graphic and violent (almost haunting at times) but RJB’s descriptive detail really built this story’s tension, intrigue and atmosphere.
I learned about the city, the world around it, the people and most importantly Orhan’s difficult life as the siege developed and it flowed excellently. I really liked Orhan’s stories and parables, like the lions and the worms, that flesh out his views and how he came to be so level headed. RJB’s prose are witty, calculated, sceptical and pragmatic. There is a lot to smile about and cheer for but there are also some more challenging notes to the writing. Mainly around racial prejudice. Orhan is seen as an outsider. Racially inferior. Who can’t walk in parks or drink from water fountains but is still tasked with saving these people’s hides. It was an interesting platform for exploring race/skin colour, fault, choices, right and wrong.
I think RJB did a great job with it and Orhan’s internal conflicts gave the narrative an emotional bite. I thought the little touch at the end concerning historical accuracy was bittersweet and insightful too. Simultaneously taking accounts such as this one with a grain of salt but also wondering if it did actually play out exactly as it was told. You never really know as the information is passed down through the generations and becomes diluted or corrupted. It’s hard being a hero!
I thoroughly enjoyed this mind over muscle tale of a lone soul attempting to engineer his way of an impossible situation. I thought RJB’s delivery was inspired and I had a great time with Orhan has he worked himself to the bone for people who will never remember him for it. I couldn’t get enough of the objective, inventive and cunning prose. Orhan and RJ Barker’s efforts were admirable ones and I can’t recommend this book enough to history, fantasy, action and war fans or those readers who enjoy something satisfyingly different.
About K. J. Parker
K. J. Parker is a pseudonym for Tom Holt. He was born in London in 1961. At Oxford he studied bar billiards, ancient Greek agriculture and the care and feeding of small, temperamental Japanese motorcycle engines. These interests led him, perhaps inevitably, to qualify as a solicitor and emigrate to Somerset, where he specialised in death and taxes for seven years before going straight in 1995. He lives in Chard, Somerset, with his wife and daughter.