How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It by K. J. Parker – Book Review

K. J. Parker is a master of voice. His Siege Trilogy accents this mastery, providing the reader with narrators with personalities large enough they threaten to drown out most other voices. How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It, the middle book in this trilogy, has to contend with a difficult task: offering a worthy follow-up to the ironic, cynical voice of the first book’s protagonist Orhan. Not everyone enjoys the change. For myself, I came to adore Notker, an actor forced into the role of a lifetime. It’s unfortunate that the lifetime in question is not his.

The novel’s title tells you what kind of read you’re in for: Parker isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel but putting his own spin on it. The City is much as it was in How to Rule an Empire, a fantasy analogue to Constantinople with all the faction in-fighting and politicking you could ask for. All of this is happening in the backdrop of the eponymous siege that sees a million-strong army continue to encircle the City for the ninth year running. The balance of power is precarious–all that the enemy needs is for the City’s defenders to make one mistake to capitalise on. This is something that Notker realises early on as he is forced into the role of the City’s deceased champion, forced to play him as nothing more than figurehead. Notker, however, is a little too good a character actor. When he starts making improvements on the conspirators’ plans, you as reader just know that Parker is pulling a Robert Heinlein-style Double Star twist on us, having Notker grow to his full potential as a human being when in this position of authority–and responsibility–for hundreds of thousands of lives. All it would take is a single mistake and all of them would be snuffed out.

Of course, Parker is not Heinlein (you ask me, he’s worth several Heinleins based on the quality of his voice alone) and so to those of you who are familiar with the novel I reference, and have reviewed in the past, don’t let that prejudice you when it comes to the object of this review.

Notker is not a military mind. Whereas Orhan was prone on offering technical analysis and tidbits of engineering genius, Notker approaches the issues in the city by drawing from his experiences with the most bloodthirsty arena of all–the theatre. And that’s in a place that has actual gladiatorial games. Notker’s spiel doesn’t fail to entertain, and there is a great joy in watching him begin to make sense of the world from his changed perspective:

“It slowly dawned on me that it’s possible for the wise men who run your life for you to see disaster coming and not have a plan for dealing with it; because they know what needs to be done but there are vested interests in the way, or they can’t figure out the politics, or they think it’ll be horrendously unpopular, or it’ll cost too much money,”

I think K. J. Parker’s books in the Siege trilogy are all about people who have no clue whatsoever how to handle the situations life throws them in. Both Orhan and Notker are protagonists who have no desire to end up in the positions of power they suddenly find themselves in; they don’t know what to do and they sure as hell don’t want to do the job. But they’re there, and there’s no helping it, so they might as well do it. On the journey await, crippling doubt, dangers aplenty, and the recognition that relegating responsibility to those who are skilled at their jobs is pretty damn important. There’re probably other lessons there, as well, but I don’t know that I can impart them better than the book can – thus my original point: read K. J. Parker’s books. Start with Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, start with this one. Either way, you’re in for a glorious time, tense, full of turns and clever surprises. It’s riotous fun!

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