Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker
Anything written by K.J. Parker is a must-read for me. I love his work and recommend it to anyone looking for exciting stories with unique, intelligent, and often unreliable, heroes. Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City (2019) is no exception.
Orhan is a master bridge builder who’s slightly corrupt (you have to be if you want to get anything done on time and within budget in this city). He arrived in the city when he was a child after his parents were killed and the enemy enslaved him. Now those enemies are his neighbors, colleagues, employers, and employees. While Orhan acknowledges that he is living among people he should hate, he is also thankful for the opportunities he’s been given in the city he now calls home.
Now that city is besieged by an overwhelming enemy force that’s determined to break down its walls and slaughter everyone inside. Through a series of weird events, Orhan finds himself unexpectedly in charge of defending it. He’s not a soldier, so he doesn’t have the kind of experience needed to lead a war effort, but he isn’t totally unequipped, either. He’s an engineer, after all, and he may have just the kind of skills needed to save his city. But to be successful, he’ll have to learn to work within the bureaucratic system instead of outside it, and he’ll have to somehow get rival factions to set aside their animosity and work together for the good of the whole.
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is my kind of war story. Instead of long bloody bouts of hand-to-hand combat with melee weapons, this war is mostly fought with physics, engineering (mechanical and civil), and a lot of cunning. The story moves quickly and twists in unexpected ways. The characters are atypical and interesting.
I grew attached to Orhan, whose unscrupulous ways became understandable, sometimes even laudable, over the course of the story. Orhan’s complicated relationship to the city made me think of the history (and present reality) of my own country, and how some of my neighbors may have reasons for not feeling as patriotic or nationalistic as others.
The audio edition, produced by Hachette Audio, is narrated by Ray Sawyer who was a nice choice to represent Orhan. Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is 13.25 hours long in this format.