The third book in K.J. Parker’s The Siege presents once again a story set in the same world as the two previous volumes, but this time not in the City we have come to know through the chronicles of Orhan the engineer and Notker the actor turned leader: here the protagonist is Felix (the lucky), a Robur national sent as a diplomatic envoy and translator to the Echmen empire.
Felix ended there under a cloud of disgrace caused by an ill-considered liaison which cost him dearly, both physically and socially, and all he wants now is to keep a low profile and read books: easier said than done though, because first he ends up saving the life of a Hus princess-hostage, who was going to be executed because of a grammatical misunderstanding, and then he’s in turn saved by that same princess once it seems that the Robur nation has been obliterated and that Felix is its only survivor. From that moment on, Felix – and the princess – will embark on a journey across the wide world that will lead them to meet its many different peoples, as the former translator starts what can only be termed as an incredible revolution that will change the balance of power through the application of an apparently unplanned conquest strategy.
The protagonists of Parker’s novels, despite their differences, share a common unreliability as narrators, and what’s more they make no mystery of it – Felix is indeed the one who seems to be the most open on the subject, in respect of his predecessors:
I really don’t understand why people go on about how wonderful the truth is. In my experience, all it does is make trouble.
This is even more true here because, as the story moves forward, we learn that what appears as a series of unconnected and unplanned choices ends up generating very serendipitous results that point toward a carefully orchestrated plan. Felix’s narration makes it all look quite accidental, or at the very least the product of inspiration drawn from one of the many books he’s read, but after a while it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that he’s not “encouraging” the outcome from the sidelines. Especially when he says things like this:
Everything I’ve touched I’ve translated, into one thing or the other.
To further muddy the waters, at some point he makes a mention of his offhand humorous approach to situations, drawing a parallel between it and the ink squids use as camouflage against predators, and adding that under the layers of that protective humor he’s quite scared, but given his unreliability as a narrator it’s not so easy to fully believe him.
All of the above turns Felix into a character that is difficult to relate to, and there are times when I felt quite annoyed with him – in a half-amused way, granted, but still annoyed, so that I could quite sympathize with the princess when she berated him and looked ready to use physical violence. And yet, the relationship between the two of them (which cannot turn into a romantic pairing because of Felix’s… unfortunate situation) is one of the narrative delights of the story, with the two of them forming a complicated partnership that nonetheless works on many levels and offers some very amusing scenes, like the ones where Felix translates her profanity-laden speeches into something more diplomatically appropriate.
What truly differentiates this book from its predecessors is that the story follows a journey/quest model rather than being set in the City, which offers the author the chance to have a lot of fun with the different names and customs of the many tribes our two fugitive travelers meet: the travelogue might look somewhat confusing because the book does not have a map, which might have made things more visually understandable, but it’s a minor inconvenience after all, because Felix’s tongue-in-cheek descriptions of these peoples, their history and above all their quirks, makes for an amusing sketch of this world and its inhabitants who, despite the outward cultural differences, seem to share a deep distrust of strangers – but also the inability to resist the translator’s quick tongue and powers of conviction.
At times, the long lists of places and tribes – complete with details about customs and laws – feels like too much information and one could be tempted to skip forward to get back to the main story, but I don’t recommend it, because you might lose some entertaining detail. Granted, these finer points might not be indispensable in the Grand Scheme of Things, but they are often too funny to be missed, like the long, drawn-out story about a man who wanted to make money by selling camels. And in the end, camels DO prove to be quite effective in battle… 😉
In the end I had great fun with the Practical Guide, even though the third iteration of this series reserved little surprises as far as the outcome would be, but like the story it tells, what truly matters here is the characters’ journey and not its end, and in the course of that journey there is great room for fun and a few laughs – and we all need that, from time to time.