I first saw Sixteen Ways to Defend A Walled City when it came out, and it caught my attention: a potentially humorous, military fantasy exploit by an author known for his historical and humorous works (KJ Parker is a pseudonym for Tom Holt). I’m glad I read it.
What to expect
The story starts by setting the character (Orhan, colonel of the Imperial Engineering Brigade) against the mind-numbingly bureaucratic mechanism of the empire. There are definite Roman/Byzantine inspirations (enough to give a chuckle, not to get in the way and the whole is steeped with cynicism that any army veteran would love.
As the siege closes on the city, Orhan finds himself commanding the defending forces, who are stuck in (very realistic) dire straights. While he uses his ingenuity to delay what seems like the inevitable defeat, we get treated to what life in besieged (Byzantine-ish) city would be like, interspersed with humour and derring-do. They story is as much about human nature as it is about historical siege-craft.
What I liked
I loved the humour and wit, the man-against-bureaucracy cynicism, and Orhan’s own voice in telling the story. You can’t help but love his self-deprecating ways, and most of the other characters are well drawn too (and we may forgive if some aren’t). In truth, the bigger story is about human nature, about the foibles and pettishness that lie behind the grand words and achievements, and how humans act toward one another.
Readers of my novels would know my love of Ancient Rome, so that aspect (the colourful background of the world) was a pure delight, especially since Parker (Tom Holt) has such excellent grounding in history.
What to be aware of
One, though it is fantasy (a complete secondary world), that’s the only aspect – no magic of any kind. Still, my experience is that many fantasy readers love historical fiction next, so that plus the secondary world aspect should be enough to satisfy.
The big thing is the ending. Oh, that ending. It is at once unsatisfying and the only thing that could justly be done to the story. Remember, this story is about social criticism as much as it is about historical military. In a sense, writing an ending with a “satisfying” character arc would have detracted from the focus of book. By leaving the reader hanging, we are forced to go back and examine the real focus of the story. This is not a ‘character-driven’ story, it won’t satisfy the prurient young-adult readers – it’s a story about human nature of whole societies.
Felix recognised the military bureaucracy and elitism all too well from his own Republican-“Roman” days. He’s glad that times were simpler when he was in the military, though – weasel that he is – he probably would have thrived better under the empire’s armies. He did enjoy the cultural analogies to his own world, and agrees with me (once I explained a few points about modern history) that sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.
A highly recommended book. This is one to make you think, speculative fiction at its best – it uses the fantastical setting to provide poignant social criticism. Grab a copy and savour this.