Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a comedic and exciting fantasy story set in an alternate version of the Byzantine Empire, and the alternate Ottomans are at the gate, ready to lay siege. In the midst of this we follow the story of Orhan who narrates these eventful times to us in first person perspective. Orhan is an army engineer and knows a thing or two about building bridges and repairing walls, and the occasional financial scheme to get his sappers paid. He’s a clever, sneaky fellow with an acerbic wit, and his narrative voice is a delight to read.
Orhan is a guy who can look after himself. He’s always been an outsider in his own mind, and since he’s a “milkface” from other parts of the world, other officers in the army look down on him, but he doesn’t let it get to him. His philosophy is that you can never know what the future has in store for you and who will be on your side and who won’t when the time comes. There is a running joke in his story that his friends always get him in trouble, and his enemies always get him out of trouble. Life can be surprising that way. Will his luck hold now with enemies at the gate?
I found this novel remarkably well crafted. God, I sound full of myself. Orhan’s tone of voice is highly entertaining and he is full of sharp observations and little cynical bits of wisdom. Parker builds up a fascinating character for him, and surrounds him with all sorts of other equally well-crafted, unique characters. Parker shows a deep and natural understanding of human interactions, of their complex emotions and dealings and relationships. But the first thing that really impressed me was the sense of versimilitude that he creates with this fantasy version of Constantinople. Since Orhan is very precise in his descriptions about economic interactions, logistics, and the course of conflicts, the city and its internal workings feel incredibly real.
This may sound like a weird comparison, but this is a lot like Andy Weir’s The Martian (2014), down to the comedy and the focus on problem solving, but the medieval siege variant. As Orhan takes charge of the city after all the high functionaries fled, he engages in some real out-of-the-box thinking. We follow his step by step decision process as he enlists the criminal underworld to help him out, restructures the financial system and starts building ballistae. The story is exhilarating and moves at a high pace.
Around the midway point there is a stunning 20-page conversation, which the whole book was leading up to. The siege suddenly gets a lot more personal for Orhan and he has to rack his brain over the question of what kind of person he wants to be. And this book is not non-stop action – not at all. Orhan is mostly trying to keep the city together. I loved his connection with a friend and bartender, the woman Aichma, who is at least as smart as he is, which he finds very annoying but he still comes to her to talk over all the problems.
Parker’s knowledge of medieval sieges and weapons is such that he can write a fantasy story like this in a way that few other authors are capable of. In his short story collection Academic Exercises (2014) he already included essays on sieges and weaponry, highlighting what a deep interest this is for him. Combine that with talented prose writing, excellent characterisation, and we have a golden combination for a fantasy novel. Siege novels have been written before and are a staple of the genre, like David Gemmell’s Legend (1984), but not with the attention to detail and exciting competency as in this novel. I loved every word.