Some Thoughts on Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City

I picked up this book on the strength of the title. I had never heard of K.J. Parker, who I’ve since learned is a pretty big deal in fantasy fiction. I don’t know how good an introduction this is to his work but I can tell you I really liked it and will most likely try more of his fiction when I get around to reading more fantasy. When I came across Sixteen Ways at the library I imagined it being a bit like the movie Zombieland, a fun fictional account of the ways and rules you have to bear in mind when defending a walled city. What I got instead was a great character driven story with a very funny and flawed narrator that happens to also be about the defence of a walled city. 

It is the quality of the voice that really makes this novel. Orhan, the protagonist and narrator, is a lovable scoundrel, an outsider making his way in a society that values him for his skills as much as it derides him for the colour of his skin. It is this voice that transforms what could have been a dry account of a siege into something much more. If Plutarch or The Decline and Fall were written like this, I’d have read them already. The voice and the setup reminded me of something else that I couldn’t quite figure out at first, but I’ve since realised that it’s The Martian. It’s that same quality of voice that exemplifies how a good teacher can make anything interesting and this point is only highlighted further in the last couple of pages that occur outside the narrative and frame the whole story as a historical document.

I recently learned a term that perfectly describes the kind of fiction that I apparently enjoy a lot, and that term is Competence Porn. It’s lovely to read about interesting, engaged people dealing with complex problems that I don’t know much, if anything, about. I like seeing Sherlock solve crimes, I like seeing Mark Watney conduct experiments, I like seeing Orhan build bridges and battlements. From what I gather K.J. Parker has written quite a lot of novels about engineers, so he’ll probably end up being my new favourite author. 

Some spoilers coming up, be warned. 

Sixteen Ways is also an exquisitely paced novel. The rationing of information gives you enough to puzzle about while also teasing you with spaces your imagination has to fill. In fact, it creates the kind of atmosphere that I imagine there would be in a siege. Nobody except the supreme commander really has all the information, probably because everyone having the whole picture would freak everybody out, so every scrap of information is highly valued and bitterly protected. And even Orhan doesn’t know everything. The great mystery of the first half of the novel is; who is leading the army against the walled city? Having the leader of the enemy forces be an old friend who hates the city for the same reasons Orhan might, and was actually counting on Orhan to be his inside man without Orhan even knowing it, is a master stroke. It’d be easy for this revelation to come too early and let all the air out of the story, but Parker’s choice of villain effortlessly sets up the rest of the conflict; Orhan has more reasons than most to hate the empire he is trying to defend, and now it’s revealed that to defend it, he’ll have to fight against his old friend, a friend he agrees with almost all the way. It’s always nice to see a scoundrel get some depth and boy does Orhan get some depth. 

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a fantastic novel and I am really glad I picked it up on a whim. Don’t you love it when you pick something up on the spur of the moment and it turns out to be something you really love, something you’re gonna tell everybody to read? What was the last book you chanced upon that ended up being great?

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