Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City

by K. J. Parker

Rating: ★★★★

A very engaging read. The chief quality is the voice of the narrator, a self-deprecating, self-interrupting cynic, and Parker's uniquely gripping style that keeps you moving rapidly through the plot, the transitions so compelling and natural that it's hard not to finish the book in one sitting, even if you picked it up just before you intended to go to bed.

The setting is nothing special, it's a fantasy version of Rome that borrows liberally from other parts of history, with the key twist being that the Roman-equivalents are black, and race features in a manner that would be anachronistic were this historical fiction. Parker uses this to comment on American race relations, with elements drawn pointedly from the Jim Crow era. Orhan rejects the idea that the prejudice he has suffered for being white justifies genocide, and generally the book positions the Robur model of civilisation as being better than the alternatives, despite its hypocrisies and bureaucracy.

The main drive of the plot is the siege, which could've sold me on this book by itself. The engineers end up the only force in the city capable of managing its defence, their backs up against the wall with the lack of manpower or generally any means of holding off the enemy other than the impressive walls and a certain amount of bluffing. It's a 'start from nothing' narrative with rapid progress, and plenty of internal conflict and dodgy know-how. Readers of Pratchett's Vimes books would find a lot that agrees with them here.

Overall, really enjoyable, and convinces me to read more of the author's work.