How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It, K.J. Parker; Ray Sawyer, narrator (Hachette Audio 978-1-54915786-8, $24.98, digital download, 12.75 hr., unabridged) August 2020.
In Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, Orhan, the head of a military corps of engineers and a skilled con artist, managed to defend his adopted city against a besieging army headed by a childhood friend, but when rescue appeared imminent, he was unexpectedly killed in a final attack that reached the heart of the City. In this follow-up, Orhan may be dead, but the con continues.
Seven years after the start of the siege, the invading army remains at the City’s gates. Inside the gates, a military junta rules, and Orhan’s old bodyguard Lysimachus serves as a beloved figurehead, the man whom everyone believes saved the City, rather than Orhan. Unfortunately, a giant boulder launched by the enemy army has just crushed Lysimachus’ house with the man still inside it. Enter Notker: a decent playwright, a mediocre actor, and a gifted impressionist. Readers of The Prisoner of Zenda or Heinlein’s SF take on it, Double Star, will guess where this is going. The junta kidnaps Notker and threatens him into impersonating Lysimachus; things take an even more surreal turn when the Senate overthrows the junta and pressures “Lysimachus” into becoming the Emperor. Notker now leads a glittering, protocol-defined, and nearly powerless existence. Certain that the City is on the verge of falling to the enemy, Notker must decide whether to plot escape (with plenty of imperial riches in hand, of course) or to actually become the hero that nearly everyone imagines him to be.
Notker isn’t Orhan, but they share certain characteristics – particularly, a very healthy dose of cynicism–and their differences become less perceptible when the same narrator reads both first-person books. The cumulative auditory experience makes the sequel seem like an unnecessarily drawn-out coda to the original story. Sawyer also starts mispronouncing character names in the middle of the production, for some reason, and then corrects himself; a sharp audio producer would have noticed these gaffes.
The twists and turns that seemed fresh and sharp in the first book start to pall a bit here, and a revelation that occurs late in the story was so strongly telegraphed that it comes as no surprise. The result is somewhat diverting, but perhaps not quite enough.
This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.
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