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Literature / Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City

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A 2019 novel by K. J. Parker telling the story of the tale of the siege of a great walled city, the capital of a mighty empire, and the even more remarkable man who had to defend it.

A siege is approaching, and the city has little time to prepare. The people have no food and no weapons, and the enemy has sworn to slaughter them all. To save the city will take a miracle, but what it has is Orhan. A colonel of engineers, Orhan has far more experience with bridge-building than battles, is a cheat and a liar, and has a serious problem with authority. He is, in other words, perfect for the job.

But then again, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is the story of Orhan, son of Siyyah Doctus Felix Praeclarissimus, and his history of the Great Siege, as written down by himself, so that the deeds and sufferings of great men may never be forgotten. So that’s the way he is telling it.

The sequel, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It, has its own page.

Contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Ogus never stops treating Orhan as a good friend. After trying to convince Orhan to betray the city in order to protect his Robur friends, he immediately makes it clear that he'll try to spare their lives no matter what - it will just be a lot harder to do so if the city falls after a chaotic battle where tons of Ogus' soldiers are killed. Even after Orhan double-crosses him, he goes to considerable trouble to arrange another meeting just to make it clear that he has no hard feelings about it.
  • Arc Words: "The worms of the earth against the lions." Worms and lions get mentioned repeatedly throughout the book, based on an old legend where the worms declared war against the lions, a metaphor for the strong and violent losing to the weak and clever. Which side of the siege is the worms and which side is the lions depends on who you ask.
  • Artistic License – History: Kind of. In our world, the notion that linothorax armor was glued together instead of stitched came about due to a mistranslation. However, it can be made by gluing (and has been in modern times), it's just that no culture is recorded as having done so. Since this is a book with alternate cultures and histories, it's possible that the gluing method was discovered/used instead.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The book ends with the Imperial navy breaking the blockade of the City just in time to fight off the big assault, saving the City both in the short term and allowing for resupply by sea in the long term — but the siege is still in place and the Empire is still in shambles with the whole known world united against it, so its chances of survival are still marginal.
  • Brandishment Bluff: The first thing Orhan does when he and his men get back to the City under seige is round up as many big, complicated machines (from cranes to wine presses) as he can and stick them up in the walls with covers over them and people nearby to trick the enemy into thinking they had artillery that they could ready in moments. It works, but he knows it's only a temporary measure.
  • Break Out the Museum Piece: The enemy has appropriated the best armor in the Empire, by killing and stripping the Empire's army. Thankfully, Orhan and his Rag Tag Bunch Of Misfits manage to get their hands on some outdated swords that were never issued and armor sent to the scrapyards (paid for at almost cost). Not to mention six centuries worth of decorative weapons and armor sent to the emperors of the City as gifts from foreign nations sitting in the archives. Just because it's made of gold and has dramatic scenes embossed into it doesn't mean it isn't armor.
  • Celibate Hero: Orhan fell in love once in his life, at age thirty-four. With his best friend's wife. What's worse, she died in childbirth bearing his child. Orhan himself likens that to having killed her and has actively shunned opportunities ever since.
  • Cincinnatus: Orhan has has to put himself in charge of the city to save it from the siege. It's not something he's crazy about but the emperor's comatose and he's the only one who can do it.
  • Colonel Badass: For a certain measure of badass. Orhan may not be much help in a fight, but that brain of his can come up with some truly extraordinary things that will mean a world of pain for his enemies.
  • Continuity Nod: The Translator's Note at the end of the book notes that the manuscript we've been reading was accidentally rediscovered during the confiscation of the met'Oc family library, an event featured in the backstory of Parker’s novel The Hammer.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The fact that Orhan finds himself in charge of the defense of the City becomes this once it's revealed Ogus, the leader of the enemy forces is Orhan's childhood friend and the whole idea for the war resulted from something Orhan told Ogus some 37 years before.
  • Cowardly Lion: Orhan is not a brave man and spends a considerable amount of the story letting you know and looking for ways to escape danger. He is also single-handedly responsible for saving the City and organizing its defense.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The final chapter in the book reveals that the text we have been reading is a translation of a rediscovered manuscript called Commentaries, supposedly written by the man who led the defense of the City during the Great Siege.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: At the end of the book, with the day saved and the enemy routed, Orhan is struck by a random arrow and succumbs to infection. The whole book is supposedly his dying dictation.
  • The Enemy Weapons Are Better: It's like this: Orhan and his troops are engineers who also happen to technically be soldiers, and as such were cheaply kitted out as a group who were never going to see actual combat. They were issued swords, yes, but obsolete ones which aren't as easy or comfortable to use as the newest model and have only been used to intimidate civilians and open boxes—and some members of the division don't even have those thanks to leaving them at home, losing them, or "losing" them and getting cash for ale. Oh, they have axes...great for chopping wood and felling trees, not good for fighting. They have armor...padded cloth underarmor, which actually works pretty well...and which they left at home because they didn't plan on discovering an enemy army. Hey, some of them have bows! Yes, a few of them broke the rules and brought small hunting bows, for hares. You know who does have excellent armor and weaponry? The enemy, because they routed The City's army and stripped them of thirteen thousand state-of-the-art weapons, armor, and other kit, and they're headed towards the city.
  • The Engineer: The novel's protagonist is the Colonel of the Engineer's Regiment, and he is frightfully good at his job. His engineering and organizational skills are the only thing that keeps the City from falling.
  • Evil Is Petty: Discussed. Faustinius thinks that Orhan is deliberately turning the city upside-down as revenge for how the council treated him, as a "milk-skin". Orhan tells him that he actually considered that this might have been one of his motives, but dismissed it. He's just desperate to protect the people of the City by any means necessary.
  • Fantastic Slurs: Since the Robur who run the empire have very dark black skin, the people who don't like them despectively call them "blueskins". For their part, the Robur at least pay lip service to the fact that it is not polite to call the white skinned barbarians "milkfaces". They all do it anyway.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Like most of Parker's work, the Empire at the heart of the story is very transparently based in The Byzantine Empire, with its nameless capital being pretty much Constantinople with the serial numbers filed off.
  • Fatal Flaw: Orhan freely admits that no matter how well he tries to plan things, there's always something he misses.
  • First-Person Smartass: Barely a paragraph goes by without Orhan making some kind of wise-ass or sarcastic remark about what he is describing.
  • Final Solution: The ultimate goal of the invading army is the complete and utter extermination of the Robur people, which they see as the only way to insure that The Empire dies and stays dead.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Sawdust, the Blues' chief carpenter is nothing short of a mechanical genius, finding ways to implement Orhan's crazy schemes and inventing completely new artillery engines on the spot just from the descriptions of what Orhan wants them to do.
  • Heroic BSoD: The emperor went catatonic after his sons were killed in a boating accident and the higher-ups kept this a secret for months.
  • I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder: Orhan stresses that he and his men are engineers, not soldiers.
  • Low Fantasy: The only thing close to fantastical about this setting is that it doesn't use real-world countries or cultures. In some respects it's almost an Alternate History.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Orhan reveals near the end that he slept with his best friend's wife at least once. Said best friend's daughter is also lighter-skinned than most Robur. He's not sure she's biologically his, and he would be looking after her anyway, but he feels guilty about how likely it is.
  • Master Forger:
    • After authorizing a number of shocking but necessary measures toward protecting the city using authority granted him by the Imperial Seal, Orhan foolishly walks through a bad part of town alone and gets coshed over the head. When he comes to, his jacket has been stolen and the Seal was in his pocket. He hires/forces the best forger he knows to recreate a copy. The problem is, the Seal was created by an artist whose work is so unique that even though the forger busts his hump creating a nigh-perfect copy, it's still not good enough.
    • When Orhan is forced to finally confess this to the leaders of the gangs he's recruited to defend the city—based on his Seal-granted authority—the leader of the Blues says that they happen to have a really good forger themselves. When Orhan says that forger can't copy the Seal well enough to hold up to scrutiny, the leader says, well, actually, they already have.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: The army trying to destroy the City and the Empire and exterminate the Robur people is made up of the Empire's own auxiliary troops, who as foreigners and conquered peoples, are all treated as second class citizens by the Robur.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Orhan had always wondered what might happen if someone could launch those big, perfectly spherical stone balls rich people use to decorate their houses with at enemies massed outside of catapult range. It turns out that first, the enemies laugh when the balls bounce well short of them, then they laugh when the balls bounce again...then the seventy-pound stone balls tear straight through their bodies, tents and horses at a frightening rate, until they roll up the hill behind them and come back through the lines even faster. Disgusted by what he's done, when his second-in-command Nico starts gushing about how 's revolutionized artillery warfare Orhan tells him to shut up. He's even more upset when he has to turn them on the Greens after they decide they're sick of working with the Blues.
  • No Ending: The narrative ends with the outcome of the Great Siege and the war unresolved, because Orhan took an arrow during the battle and is about to die. This is why he is dictating the Commentaries. Lampshaded by Orhan himself of course...
    This story is ending abruptly. So is my life, so you’ll have to forgive me if I can’t tie up the loose ends, tell you what became of who, say a proper goodbye to the men and women whose adventures you’ve been following. Sorry, but I can’t help you. If by some miracle the City survives, maybe so will the official records, and you can look up the registers of marriages and deaths. Otherwise, what the hell. The most someone like me can do is strike a light in the darkness. As soon as it burns my hand, I have to let go. Besides, I’m not really a historian, only an engineer.
  • Not Me This Time: After the Greens decide to burn down the Blues' clubhouse and are routed by Orhan and his men (with the help of a lot of artillery, also Orhan's doing) there's cacophony and disorder—and then Lysimachus, Orhan's bodyguard has two of the Parks and Garden folks hoist Orhan upon a shield. This is a big, big gesture in Robur culture—essentially something emperors, future or otherwise, do/have done after battles and more or less an impromptu coronation. Some people react to this gesture with awe, some protest, but everyone thinks it was yet another of Orhans audacious-but-brilliant ideas no matter how he tries to tell them otherwise. This is extremely frustrating for him, because he has no such ambitions and it complicates things.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: When they meet Ogus points out to Orhan that even if they both ended up in better circumstances than they would have if the Empire's slavers hadn't kidnapped them, surely he can't forgive the Robur and hates them as much as Ogus does. Orhan realizes to himself that yes, he's been getting back at the Robur Empire in subtle ways his whole life and maybe his recent actions have been out of a desire to tear apart the old system as they were to protect the city...but Ogus wants to eliminate the Robur race from the face of the Earth and Orhan doesn't.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat:
    • Zigzagged. The military was full of these, and all but a few got killed thanks to enemy misdirection and traps. The government was full of these, but a large chunk of them scarpered off on the nearest evacuating ships when the enemy came. Therefore, Orhan decides to essentially throw out the old system entirely and set up a new one using the "other empire" of criminals and gangs to run everything. However, Aichma—whom he'd appointed Minster of Supplies over her protests in spite of a lack of training and experience—calls him out on this, saying that just because the system failed doesn't mean there weren't experienced, useful people within it that he needs to work with in order for the City to survive, and he ultimately agrees.
    • Prefect Faustinius, although sympathetic to Orhan and willing to work with him to save the city, causes a few problems simply by being a Sheltered Aristocrat too naïve to understand how the shadier side of the city does things.
    • There are some straight examples, though, of course. One is an emperor prior to the story who laughed off the idea of layered, glued linen armor even after a practical demonstration showed that it deflected swords, axes and arrows easily. After all, he'd be a laughingstock if he sent his men out in rags! Forty years later with a city under siege and told that this armor is going to take a month to make from scratch, Orhan doesn't think it's very funny.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The Empire's greatest army was routed, their local Navy crippled and the Fleet misled a far distance away. The only people who can hold the City against the enemy are Orhan and his brigade of engineers, a seriously corrupt and inept City Watch, the Parks and Garden division, two rival gangs, whichever government officials didn't make it on the boats out and the citizens, tradesmen and criminals who actually run the City.
  • The Scrounger: Orhan himself is one of the rare cases where the character is also the unit's commanding officer. As a matter of fact, it was Orhan's uncanny ability to lie, cheat, steal, embezzle, etc., in order to keep the regiment supplied despite the shortages and the imperial bureaucracy that made him rise through the ranks to Colonel, despite his race.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: The Robur citizens of the Empire believe that it's a well-oiled machine which has been working for centuries, and for the most part they're not wrong...unfortunately when an enemy figures out how to break that machine, the highborn citizens have problems coping.
  • Training the Peaceful Villagers: The Parks and Garden department probably never expected to be replacing the army, but it seems they take to the job with gusto.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Orhan himself makes no apologies about the fact that he is telling the story how he thinks it should be told. Then there’s the fact that a various points Orhan makes comments that could only make sense if the book had been written years after the Siege rather than been dictated by someone dying in the middle of it. The Translator’s Note at the end lampshades this:
    Regrettably, therefore, we have no option but to let the narrator speak for himself. It is enormously frustrating that our only witness to such momentous events should be so unsatisfactory; unreliable, self-serving and barely literate.
  • Uriah Gambit: After he and his best friend Aichmalotus's wife fell in love, Orhan and the lady cooked up a scheme to have Aichmalotus, a gladiator, killed in a battle. Orhan took a powerful young fighter who'd been forced into his unit for violent discipline problems and arranged for the lad to be a gladiator instead with the intent that the kid would kill Aichmalotus. It didn't work out—Aichmalotus beat the kid and the lady died giving birth to Aichma, leaving Orhan with two deaths on his conscience.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Orhan's biggest headache in the defense of the City lies in the fact that the people inside the walls are more concerned about settling scores with other factions in the City than they are about the genocidal horde camped outside.
  • You Are in Command Now: When Colonel Orhan finds his way back to the City to help with the defense, he finds out that every higher ranking officer is dead or somewhere else, the entire upper echelon of the civilian government has fled the City and the Emperor has been in vegetative state for months... meaning Orhan is in charge of the City.