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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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
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  • 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 its only a temporary measure.
  • Celibate Hero: Orhan fell in love once in his life, at age thirty-four. With his best friend's wife.
  • 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 its 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 army don't even have those thanks to leaving them at home, losing them, or "losing" them and getting cash for ale. 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 on the way to the city. They have bows...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 basically The Empire's entire army—certainly the best of them—and stripped them of thirteen thousand state-of-the-art weapons, armor, and other kit, and they're headed towards the city.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder: Orhan stresses that he and his men are engineers, not soldiers.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Scrounger: Orhan himself is one of the rare cases where the character is also the unit's commending 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.
  • 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.