Book Review: How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, by K.J. Parker

I’ve read the previous novel (Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City) just recently, and there was just no doubt I’d read this one as soon as it comes out.

What to Expect

Events in this book take place seven years after the previous one, with the The City still besieged all around by the horde camped outside its walls (although luckily they have the sea port open). Some of the important characters from the previous novel are still quite active in managing all the warfare side, and life, as they say, goes on.

The story is again in first-person POV, this time following a two-bit actor and playwright who gets dragged in (against his better judgement and best efforts) to all the cutthroat politics of the city and the war. Expect some major twists and reversals as he tries to survive and do right (by himself).

What I liked

As before, I love the deep influences of Byzantine culture, without it being actual historical. The prose and character are engaging from the first page, the world-building is spectacular, and the plot is both fast and deep.

This novel also has a lot of social criticism like the previous one, albeit on different subjects. The fantasy element is that it’s a different world, not a what-if about magic. Parker uses it as a vehicle to explore issues of both ancient and modern society – truth, beauty, politics, war, art, etc. It is a deep novel, one that can make you think, not just tear through for the adventure.

What to be aware of

This story is more about palace culture, about the politics of running a Byzantine city-empire than the military siege-craft which was the subject of the first book. There is a lot of social criticism in the importance people put on art and artists (with the obligatory in-jokes for authors, besmirching the writing of the previous novel), about what’s real and what’s an act, about the roles that people fulfil privately and publicly. It’s definitely a novel to read and think about.

The ending is again one of those “had to happen this way” twists, though thankfully not as brutal as in the previous novel. Definitely finishing on a different, more positive, tone

Felix’s Review

Felix’s culture (based on Ancient Rome) had an ambivalent relationship with theatre and actors. Everyone loved the theatre, but actors were considered a only one step up from those who clean the sewers. There was even a famous incident where the respectable crowd stampeded out of a play by Terrence because someone spread the rumour it’ll have rope-walkers and mummery (something that Felix witnessed first hand).

Still, his cynical side won, and he loved to see one of the “common people” who got dragged into politics manage to put one over the ruling elite, and twist things to his (and his fellows) benefit.


Highly original fantasy, recommended for anyone who’d like a bit more depth than just adventure. Do read Sixteen Way to Defend a Walled City first if you haven’t.

Like my reviews? I adore historical-fantasy mash-ups and the Roman era, to the point I write my own stories of a paranormal detective set on a backdrop based on Ancient Rome. Check out the free short stories!


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