I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
I enjoyed reading K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, therefore I was very curious to see how the story would be carried forward with a new main character: from the very start Notker, the protagonist of this novel, spoke with a very unique, very entertaining voice and made this new sojourn in the city a delightful time.
The city is now in its seventh year of the (so far not very successful) siege by the ever-growing army of the so-called milkfaces: the blue-skinned Robur ruled over this part of the world for a long time, placing the light-skinned inhabitants in a practically and culturally subservient position. Once the oppressed decided to put an end to the Robur dominion, the siege of the city began and, as we saw in the previous book, it was thanks to the milkface engineer Orhan if the invading army’s attempts at overruling its defenses did not succeed. As the story opens, we learn that the Robur, not exactly happy to acknowledge Orhan’s endeavors, have tweaked history a bit and heaped the glory for their salvation on the shoulders of Lysimachus – Orhan’s former bodyguard and a far more acceptable Robur – making him the public face of government.
Unfortunately, one of the stones regularly launched by the invaders’ trebuchets falls on on a building where Lysimachus and other officials are present, killing him instantly: the effect on public morale would be devastating, so the city’s de-facto rulers decide to employ a body double to keep Lysimachus alive in the eyes of the citizens. Enter Notker, a struggling actor and playwright, whose skills as an impersonator are well known: he’s enrolled for the charade despite his deep misgivings, and day after day he surprises even himself by growing so well into the role that at times he finds it hard to avoid blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction. He becomes so good in his role that his personality – at least on the surface – undergoes important changes, as do his goals, or at least that’s what he seems to convey…
Indeed “seems” is the pivotal word here: where Orhan was an unreliable narrator simply because we saw events only from his point of view, Notker is even more unreliable because he’s a professional liar – after all what are actors if not people who can don many personalities as they would do with clothes? So in his case we not only witness events from his angle, we know he is putting on a mask, playing a role, and this adds a further layer of misdirection on anything he says or does. What’s more, Notker seems to enjoy being Lysimachus, not just for the power he finds himself able to wield, but because he has such a low esteem for himself that he seems to prefer living a lie than showing the real person underneath:
[…] being me has never been easy. And on balance I’d far rather be anybody else but me.
If Notker is clearly unreliable, on the other hand he’s witty and funny and – veteran actor that he is – he manages to infuse a light note in everything he describes, be it a political conspiracy, a particularly bloody assault on the walls or a difficult negotiation with the Themes, the two factions that run the city’s working class and are in constant, fierce competition with each other. What emerges from his light-hearted chronicles, however, is a sort of moral code, no matter how heavily disguised, that adds an intriguing facet to Notker’s character and slowly turns him from the initial lovable rogue into a sympathetic character: if absolute power can corrupt, it can also sometimes change people for the better, make them care for something beyond their immediate needs. Or, to use Notker’s own words:
[…] that’s the risk with staying in character. Sooner or later the character stays in you.
Through a series of flashbacks we learn more about our protagonist and his difficult childhood under the wing of an overbearing father with a penchant for violence that the man channeled into a career as a Theme enforcer: despite Notker’s almost-fond recollections of those fatherly lessons, we can perceive his desire to detach himself from such an heritage, and that’s another reason it’s easy to empathize with him and to understand his need to forge his own destiny, but also to do something good once he finds himself in the position to do so.
Unlike Orhan, who remained front and center in his version of the story, Notker is paired with another interesting character, fellow actress and onetime lover Hodda: the author often mentions, with tongue-in-cheek humor, that one of the main requirements for a successful play is the presence of a strong female character and Hodda fits this specification to perfection, not only because she’s a determined, independent woman who brings these qualities to her roles, but also because she’s practical and resolute and faces life with a no-nonsense attitude that’s very refreshing. Her dealings with Notker, even when circumstances bring them very close, are always based on those traits, and she often acts as the voice of reason (a voice laced with a strong dose of scorn, granted) tempering Notker’s wildest flights of fancy. Both in this story and the previous one the author brought to life this kind of female character – women who combine a sharp tongue with an even sharper intellect, who take no flak from men and know what they want from life and how to get it, and Hodda here is their rightful representative.
How to Rule an Empire… like its companion novel is a fun journey that nonetheless compels you to seriously think about people and what drives them, that successfully mixes drama and comedy always keeping a good balance between these elements and that presents you with memorable characters while telling a fast-paced story able to hold your attention from start to finish. For me, a perfect combination….