Book review

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City

by K.J.Parker

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Let’s be honest here, I bought this book because of the title. Don’t by a book by its cover – well, maybe, but surely you can take the title into account? I did here, and I have zero regrets.

Orhan is a military engineer. He’s never going to rise far through the ranks, despite his evident competence – he’s the wrong race, and regarded as useful, but somewhat out of his depth on a battlefield. By a series of unfortunate accidents, though, Orhan finds himself in a city that is about to be under seige. He is the sort of person who will, somewhat reluctantly, step in when others are thrashing incompetently around him, so he finds himself increasingly in demand, and increasingly in charge of the city defenses.

“as a wise man once said, the difference between luck and a wheelbarrow is, luck doesn’t work if you push it.”

Fortunately, though, he is cunning, smart, and reads a lot.

“According to the books (there’s an extensive literature on the subject) there are fifteen ways to defend a walled city. You can try one of them, and if that doesn’t work— Indeed. But the books were written for generals, kings, emperors; better luck next time, and we have plenty more cities where that one came from. And, to be fair, each of the fifteen ways is practical and sensible, provided you’ve got an adequate garrison, and sufficient supplies and materiel, and a competent staff of trained officers making up a properly constituted chain of command. What the books don’t tell you is, there’s a sixteenth way. You can use it when you’ve got nothing; no stuff, no men and nobody to lead them. Apart from that, it’s got nothing to recommend it whatsoever. Fine, I thought. Let’s give it a go.”

He’s also happy to delegate to people who do appear competent, and resourceful in working out who those might be. Honourable, he is not, but that’s not what the city needs right now. It needs resourceful, and Orhan is that.

Every stupid, bloody desperate little thing I can think of buys us a tiny scrap more time, once he gets here. It’s all ridiculous and pointless, of course, but I’ve got to try.” I looked at him. “Everyone keeps telling me what I can’t do, but they’re wrong. The only thing I can’t do is nothing.”

I liked all the references to various ancient cultures in here, mixed up in a delightful way. The main division in the city, for example, is into the Greens and the Blues – you are just born into one or the other, and they hate each other for reasons lost in the mists of time.

The story is told in the first person, so it’s (delightfully) not always clear when Orhan is being a reliable narrator of his own tale, but that just gives K.J.Parker more license to have some fun with us. I’ll be lining them up now – I loved it!