How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, K.J. Parker (Orbit 978-0-316-49867-8, $16.99, 400pp, tp) August 2020.
Many years on, the walled city in K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is still under siege. The city still needs to be defended from Ogus, the leader of a rival empire who is keen on wiping out every last person in the Robur empire, most of whom are behind the city’s walls.
The siege is wearying and the Robur are over it. There’s not a whole lot that can be done, however. As Notker, an actor/playwright, points out, their current situation is like that of a deer being hunted. The deer only has to make one wrong move to be killed, while the hunter can fail and fail again but return to the hunt alive.
Notker does not consider himself part of the solution, nor, really, to be involved in the siege itself. He’s eking out a living by performing on stage and at private gigs. Then, as things often happen in fiction, a giant boulder falls out of the sky and changes the course of his life.
The boulder smooshes one of the city’s folk heroes/government pawns and the powers-that-be need to replace him before the public finds out. Our man Notker bears a resemblance to the dead man and is, of course, an actor. You can figure out what happens next.
What makes this familiar trope charming is Parker’s way with words and the levels of texture the city has taken on in the writer’s head. It feels like a real place, much in the same way that Ankh-Morpork does. While the part of the city we are focused on has changed in this tale, it remains a familiar figure.
How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is itself told from Notker’s perspective, and his rambling and amused voice carries the reader through all of the machinations of the plot – and there are a lot of machinations. That tight first person is one that Parker frequently uses, which is a feature rather than a bug because he is so good at it. While you know, ultimately, that the hero will save the day, his journey to doing so is a hoot and, occasionally, surprising.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This review and more like it in the August 2020 issue of Locus.
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