Thursday, June 16, 2022

Book Review: How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with it

Another story of a capital city under years-long siege, and a man who would be King

You’ve heard this story before. Notker, our narrator, right at the beginning admits that this is not a new story, it is one that is just in a new guise. An ordinary person winds up, by twists and turns to be mistaken for, or take the place of, someone powerful in power, and must do their best in their role. This professional actor and con-artist tells us his story is one that has happened before, buit the key to telling a story heard many times before...well, the telling of this story is where the difference and detail lies. 

This is the second City Siege novel of KJ Parker (following Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City). 

The previous novel introduced the end of the Robur (roughly, Roman turned Byzantine) Empire, as a outlander mastermind assembled a huge coalition of forces, and marched to conquer and destroy the hated Robur forever. Orban, Colonel of Engineers, in the first book, does his darndest with very limited resources to defend the last, capital city of the Robur against an overwhelming attack. That is a novel of engineer pluck and courage and intelligence trying to stave off the seemingly inevitable.fall of the city.  He does, in the end, fall, but the city’s fate is left uncertain at the end of that novel (although the implication is that the city will eventually lose and fall).

In this second volume, which starts with some overlapping of events from the first novel, we find that the city does settle down to a state of permanent siege. Notker is an actor, and a sometime playwright as well, hustling a living as often as not. Yes, people do go to the theater, but sometimes he gets hired to do impersonations, but he is living hand to mouth.  And so when the ruling military junta who control their popular hero/figurehead Lysimarchus come to him with the role of a lifetime, Notker really has no choice. And as  he continues in that role, he gets ever deeper, even as he is looking for a way out.

While the first volume had Orban explicitly say that he was not telling the whole truth in the end, here from the beginning we have a professional telling us right from the get go about the power of stories, lies, shading the truth and more in order to tell his story. The  first novel was Parker geeking out about engineering and siegecraft and how a determined engineer could frustrate the greatest army the world has assembled. By contrast, this second novel does have concerns regarding the siege and defending it, because Parker does really like to go down his rabbit holes and show it off. (In some ways, I think of him very much like Herman Melville, just enjoying sharing what he has learned and shown off about all sorts of abstruse subjects, interwoven masterfully into the story). 

However, this is a story that is about two other things--stories and the power of stories and why they work, and what we get for telling them. So there is lots of details about fictional plays and books and what those stories reflect upon the narrative and upon people. And as an actor, Notker, once he really starts getting into the role, realizes that he can BE a good Lysimarchus and how that might play to his advantage to eventually getting out of it. There is also a lot about theater and stage life and what a strange thing it is to be an actor, a playwright, a professional entertainer, and the best mordant humor in the book is Notker’s observations on the performing life.

The other thing this story is about is the government. Not about our government, specifically, but there is a lot here about how bureaucracies work, as Notka finds out who really is the underpinnings of the empire and the day to day running of things in the city. Sure, there is a military junta, and then later as Emperor, Notka is a titular head, but there are competing factions, concerns and power structures, but through it all, the civil servants and civil service are what keep a government running, which keep things moving and going. I extend this to the Themes. Like Constantinople, there are two themes in the City, the Blues and the Greens, and they act as (eventually legalized and regularized) extra-governmental organizations not quite unlike the mob. They provide a lot of the services that this government does not. Given Notker’s origins and his father’s profession and how Notker feels about all that, we get some excellent characterization of Notker and what he thinks about it all. 

All of the above, is of course, to be taken with more than a grain of salt, because Notker IS a professional liar. How much he has written down (like the first book, this is a “found document” sort of narrative) is truth, how much is is hard to say. It was entertaining in the early going to compare events and Notker’s view, of say, Orban and the siege and seeing how it looked very different in his eyes, And when Orban exited the narrative, and seeing how things continued on, I kept in mind, and you should, that Notker is telling a story here, rather than a historical narrative. 

And with that in mind, Notker does pitch his story in an entertaining fashion, with many of the little and big worldbuilding touches that Parker likes to put into his stories. Unlike the first novel, here we get a dead-center of power view of the City and its plight, and does uneasy lie the crown? You bet it does. But the beauty of a lot of Parker’s writing (except of course, see above, Notker lies) is that they often feel like historical novels in a history that never was. Between all the novels he’s written in a loosely similar world or worlds (it’s more nebulous than, say, Guy Gavriel Kay where most of his novels by now clearly are in the same single shadow world of Fionavar), there is a real heft and sometimes contradiction, and rarely intersections between the works, their time periods and their characters. But once you’ve read a Parker or two, his voice is very familiar, and even comforting, even as he invents anew. 

One other thing to note. The first book in the City cycle was very much a sausagefest, with no strong female characters. This novel has one, in the personage of Hodda. In fact, Notker telegraphs her existence in the narrative by talking about how plays do well when they have a “kickass female lead”. Hodda definitely fits that bill and her presence alone makes this a better book in some ways than the first.  Was she like this “for real” in the fictional history of the city?  Impossible to tell, because of course Notka is a liar and he is telling a story.

The one thing that first time readers to Parker may not know is that a lot of his fantasy fiction, including the City books, take place in a zero magic setting. (Other books of his do have magic, including ones that may be in the same universe or one next door to this one). If you want your fantasy fiction with even just a small touch of magic, then the City books are definitely not for you. Although they are very different in many ways, the best touchstone I can think of to the City books is Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint series. More contemporaneously, Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series also explores the Secondary World fantasy without magic environment. 

Do you need to have read Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City?  Yes and no.  Yes in the sense that it will give you a sense of the setup leading up when Notker steps onto the stage, as it were. We get a little more on the Robur Empire outside the city and in general in the first book that the second book assumes that you know. But on the other hand this book doesn’t quite need the first, this is Notker’s story and he is putting the spotlight on himself and giving himself as playwright of the work, the juiciest part. (as Notker was mentioning this, I kept thinking of the opening to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, where Zero Mostel introduces the setup and characters and gleefully admits that his is the best part, of course. 

I look forward to completing the trilogy at some point. I listened to this one in audio and the narration was a delight.

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses : +1 Strong characters and while an old story, it does new and fresh things with that story. Better female characters (specifically, Hodda) than the first book.

+1 For interesting explorations of theme of government, and entertainment.

Penalties: -1 Some readers may not be so charmed by Notker as I was. He is the only Point of View, for better or worse.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

 POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Reference: Parker, K.J., How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It [Orbit, 2020]