I received this novel from the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
Sometimes a book surprises you because it turns out to be completely different from what you expected, and in this case that surprise was a delightful one, indeed: I picked up this book on impulse, despite the scant information offered by the synopsis, because that unfathomable instinct that I’ve come to call “book vibes” was strongly drawn to it, and once again it proved to be right on target.
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is the story of a siege, and also the story of the man defending the besieged city from the unknown assailants who are cutting through the Robur Empire’s territory like a hot knife through butter. Orhan is a colonel in the engineering corps of the Robur army despite being a “milkface”: the Robur, blue skinned and aggressive, have conquered Orhan’s people and look down on them as inferior, unworthy of consideration, the prime targets for slavery and abuse, but Orhan’s engineering skills have brought him to this favored position that allows him a modicum of freedom of movement and independence.
When a few pirate-like sorties against Robur military depots turn out to be a bold move by an unknown enemy, who is able to provision his army and turn the stolen ordnance and weapons against their former owners, Orhan understands that something dire is afoot and manages to close the gates of the empire’s main city before the invaders can storm the walls. Not a military man by a long stretch (his favorite catchphrase is “I’m just an engineer”), he is however able to shore up the City’s defenses and to give it a chance of surviving beyond the mere hours that would have been the foregone conclusion if the assailants’ ruse had worked – and he manages this feat despite the ineffective short-sightedness of the ranking officials and the social turmoil always brewing under the surface.
Orhan’s success in what looks like a desperate undertaking comes from the fact that besides his engineering skills, which are quite remarkable, he’s a self-declared liar and a cheat, and he knows how to deal with all layers of society acting as a middleman between apparently incompatible parties, as testified by his greatest feat, the truce he forces on the two rival underground factions, the Blues and the Greens, compelling them to work together for the common survival and making them see reason beyond the age-old enmities, at least for a while; he also knows how to turn to his advantage the scant resources at his disposal, paying for them with somewhat counterfeit coins and carrying on through misinformation and double dealing, which seem to come to him as second nature. A man more attached to the values of honor and integrity would not have managed to accomplish as much, while Orhan’s flexible standards grant him a far wider leeway – and success.
What’s truly amazing in Orhan’s achievement is that he keeps saving the City despite its inhabitants, who keep seeing him as a milkface interloper, an upstart who should know better than to try and rise above his station, and yet they end up being swept along by the man’s sheer force of conviction – and sometimes his fists, when needed. One of the driving themes of the story is that of racism and rigid social stratification, and despite the lightly humorous tone employed by Orhan’s first-person narrative it’s not difficult to see how the Robur rule has created the kind of social order in which the dehumanization of some strata of the empire has become an accepted fact of life, even by those who are its main victims. This is an element that plays an important part in the motivations of the invading enemy and in Orhan’s inner conflict once he learns the nature and identity of said enemy: I don’t want to delve deeper into this side of the story because it should be discovered on its own, but it’s interesting to note how the engineer’s apparently carefree approach to the question offers a great deal of food for thought and discussion on the subject of loyalty, even toward those who don’t deserve it.
Orhan’s personality is a deceptively simple one: on the surface, all he cares about is building things, his pride lays in a work well done and one that endures through time, so that the narrative of the siege is carried out in a humorous, self-deprecating tone that belies his true nature and his past history. In the course of events, we are made privy to the facts and incidents that made Orhan the man he is now, and as the details pile up we begin to understand that there is more under the façade of the “simple engineer”, including something of a mean streak – not that it comes as a surprise, in consideration of his lying and cheating, but some of those instances shed a very peculiar light on him. Ultimately, it becomes evident that Orhan is an unreliable narrator, not least because he’s the one dictating the story we are reading, and by his own admission he’s not averse to embellishing some of the facts to shine a more positive light on himself. Orhan gives a whole new meaning to the concept of reluctant hero, since he does not seem to mind embellishing some his deeds, but on the other hand he’s trying his best to avoid the trouble that comes from doing what needs to be done.
One of the best features in this book is its narrative quality, a lightly witty mood that’s kept constant all throughout the story and attains that right balance that’s often so difficult to manage and that K.J. Parker handles with no apparent effort. This, together with a steady pace, made breezing through the book a joy, marred only by what seems an abrupt ending, one that left me with too many unanswered questions and a strong desire to know what happened next. It’s the only blemish I can think of in this story that turned out to be so much more than I bargained for.