RogerBW's Blog

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, K J Parker 08 March 2020

2019 fantasy of sorts. The Imperial City has been suddenly besieged, and its defences will be commanded by Orhan, Colonel of Engineers… not by his choice.

So there's a lot of Byzantium in the City, and a fair bit of Rome; Parker had a classical education, and the shreds of recollection of my own kept trying to tell me that this was a reference to that thing that I didn't quite remember. And while I suppose one has to classify this as fantasy since it's clearly not taking place in our own history, there's no magic, non-human races, or any of the usual stuff.

There is lots of practical low-tech engineering, but primarily this is a story about people-management by someone who doesn't regard himself as a people-manager (but has been forced through circumstance to learn practical ways of getting them to do what he wants). Orhan is happiest with technical problems, but he's taken on board a military education, he's had to be very good in order to overcome the Empire's inherent racism, and he can see at least a step further ahead than the random selection of people who happened to be in the City when the siege started. And he can keep more problems in his mind at once.

She looked at me. "Now that's interesting."

"Keeps me interested all night, when I'd rather be sleeping."

The core question for me was one of motivation. Orhan is a minority in an Empire that's largely of one race. The Empire has, granted, grudgingly given him promotions; but it doesn't think much of him, and he doesn't think a great deal of it. So why does he go back to the City, given a chance to flee; and why, given more chances to flee later, does he repeatedly choose to stay and very probably get killed?

He doesn't know. I can't articulate it. But I can feel it, that sense that you know the right thing to do, and because nobody else seems to feel that way that means that you simply have to do it. I'm a bit younger than Parker, but I think a few years ago we'd both have said (with a touch of embarrassment) that it was an important part of being properly English. It probably wasn't really true then except for a particular sort of person, and these days, with so many of our countrymen abandoning their professed values and turning blatantly venial the moment it's possible to get away with it, it certainly isn't.

"You went to a Council meeting in town."

I nodded. "General Priscus and the full dog show."

"And then we do this job a long way away."

"Possibly not far enough," I said.

This is how competence-porn can work well, while remaining deeply cynical. Oddly enough, I was reminded of the Innkeeper Chronicles series: when those books get threadbare, they fall into a cycle of a problem arising and the protagonist solving it. There's some of that here, but… the protagonist doesn't always have a handy solution, and sometimes he messes up. Even when he gets something much more right than anyone expected, he's always focussing on how that's used up resources or otherwise made things worse for the defenders in other ways.

There are flaws. There are only three female characters, and none of them gets more than a basic personality or a very minor role. The ending is very abrupt and leaves most of the personal stories unfinished, for all it's the ending that had to happen. Like most of Parker's work that I've read, the whole thing is relentlessly depressing, which is fine once in a while but not usually my preferred mood for reading matter.

But the black humour serves me well in a world that feels as though it's deliberately stripping itself of everything that makes life worth living. And the feeling of being the one person who actually has a clear appreciation of what's going on, and thus ends up having to organise everyone else, is all too familiar.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 05:44pm on 08 March 2020

    I always thought of doing the right thing because no-one else will as part of being properly British, but not English. Maybe that's because I'm from Yorkshire, and being English in that way was seen as having heavy overtones of the South and public school.

    Also "Dougal and the Blue Cat" on LP had a great influence on me as a child. Dougal has a wonderful Shakespearean soliloquy about being locked in a room full of sugar as a test to see if he is Dougal or not. He can't eat any or his friends will die. It ends with "Oh pull yourself together Dougal, remember you're British!" and he does the right thing.

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