We have a Parker review double header today! Be sure to also check out our review of Prosper’s Demon.
Before reading it, I was confused as to whether How To Rule An Empire And Get Away With It, by K.J. Parker, was a sequel to Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City. The blurbs I read made it seem like Empire wasn’t a sequel, but they are listed as part of a series. The ending of Sixteen was fairly definitive, but the books also share clearly similar cover art style – so suffice to say I was puzzled. After picking Empire up, I found the answer to the question is just as confusing:
Book one, Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City, is the story of an engineer stuck in an endless siege against an enormously overwhelming army camped outside. Throughout the course of the book, the engineer manages to deadlock the army, essentially creating a stalemate and saving the city. The siege is still going on at the end of the book, but for all intents and purposes, the conflict is over. Empire is a pseudo-sequel set eight years later that tells the story of a different set of characters (with some minor carry over) who are still dealing with this endless siege. Parker pretty much washes away the original cast of Sixteen by literally saying “rocks fell and everyone died” – so Empire is more like a strange retelling of Sixteen than an actual sequel. In many ways, Empire is just the same book as Sixteen – so what’s the point in reading it? The answer is Empire’s cast provides a kaleidoscope of new angles and views of a classical fantasy problem and delivers solutions and commentary with the same unyielding drive and wit as the first book.
While Sixteen told the story of an engineer facing off against an army, Empire tells the story of an actor. At the beginning of the second book, a stray catapult shot manages to kill the ruling general of the besieged city. To keep the peace and maintain morale, the general’s seconds kidnap a famous impressionist and force him to assume the general’s identity to maintain appearances. At first, the actor is just trying to save his skin and stay alive. But as time progresses, he begins to realize that no one has any idea what they are doing, and if he doesn’t actively intervene, they are going to end up losing the city. Thus begins the greatest story of faking it until you make it I have ever read.
Empire is an amazing book with a unique narrative identity. As always, Parker seems to be a man of original and clever ideas, and he writes stories to express them beautifully to his readers. The narration is done in the style of a play, with a ton of quirks and nods to this concept woven into the storytelling. The protagonist’s name is Notker, and he positively vibrates with energy and flavor. Parker does a tremendous job of approaching all the problems in the story from the perspective of an actor and finds solutions that feel true to his cast’s way of thinking. It creates this really cool dichotomy between Sixteen and Empire; if the reader is paying attention, you can see the enormous thought and detail that Parker put into both novels. The positive side of this relationship is that both books have a symbiotic relationship that improves the experience of reading both. The bad side of this relationship is it is impossible not to compare the two books directly, and I think it makes it easy to see that Empire is the weaker story.
Don’t get me wrong, Empire is an excellent book, and I absolutely recommend it. But I think Sixteen is better. Empire feels a little emptier than Sixteen, and the extreme emphasis on Notker means that the supporting cast is less developed, and the world feels less lived in. Somehow Sixteen made me feel like the worldbuilding shrunk, and I came out with less information about the setting than I started with. Finally, the pacing in the second book is a bit topsy turvy. The adherence to the play-like style means there are some extreme scene transitions and set changes that can feel jarring.
Overall, I definitely recommend How To Rule An Empire And Get Away With It. Parker somehow managed to deconstruct his own book and rebuild it into something new and wholly original, and it is an impressive work of fiction. Like all Parker books I have read, Empire is an interesting experience from start to finish – funny and fresh from page one. If I had to pick one over the other, I think I would still go with Sixteen, but they are both wonderful books that you should read as soon as possible.
Rating: How To Rule An Empire And Get Away With It – 8.5/10