I really can’t get over how much fun The Siege novels by K.J. Parker are. They are simply delightful and honestly a little hard to describe. A Practical Guide To Conquering The World is the third story in a set of loosely connected standalone novels by Parker about unlikely individuals achieving military dominance. Book one, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, is told from the POV of an engineer. Book two, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, is told by an actor. The third installment, A Practical Guide To Conquering The World, now puts us in the shoes of a translator who ends up in an extraordinary and unprecedented position in this world’s history.
The plots of all of these books are one part nonsensical, one part too real, another part insightful, and a fourth part delightful. Practical in particular focuses on the ‘true story’ of Aemilius Felix Boioannes the younger, a translator with an impressively bad string of luck who ends up leading a religious crusade in self-defense. This is history, and the intended and unintended consequences of his life, the bad stuff he did on purpose, and the good stuff that happened in spite of him. It is, in other words, the tale of a war to end all wars, and the man responsible.
Similar to books one and two, Parker’s authorial voice undergoes an impressive shift into the shoes of a character who processes most things through the lens of how people communicate. Most of the metaphors and themes of the book revolve around translations in both the literal and metaphorical sense, and I continue to be flabbergasted with how far Parker can take these ideas. Nothing ever feels like a stretch and each one of these books makes me think, “wow, translations and languages must be Parker’s one true passion.” The nature of these books continues to be utterly unique and I really cannot think of another series with the same feel as these three gems.
As for the brass tacks of how Practical reads, it’s probably the most enjoyable of the three mechanically. The pacing is lightning quick and always keeps you on your toes with unexpected, yet fitting, twists. The humor continues to be on point with a nice mix of dry observational and situational elements. It is super refreshing to have a creative take on a character involved in religious orders, and I loved what Parker did with the ideas of faith and the divine. The characters are surprisingly memorable, even those with only a few pages of screen time. There was some very interesting play with character motivations and drive that did a great job juxtaposing with a traditional genre story structure that I personally found very refreshing. “What does Felix really want?” is a strange question that sat heavily on me the entire book. Our protagonist is of mixed moral standing with many actions that are unironically abhorrent. I don’t usually go for morally grey protagonists, but most of Felix’s choices did a lot to expand the discussion on central topics and themes in the novel so I think it worked. Felix also doesn’t feel like a character trying to justify the bad things they do, nor does he only do bad things; he is a complicated individual that kept me interested in what he would do next to the end.
A Practical Guide To Conquering The World has a little bit of closure for the entire Siege series, but I honestly found it the least interesting aspect of the book. The entire thing is a fascinating and creative tale that feels chock full of great abstract humor and fresh versions of classic fantasy scenes. I found Practical both vivid and unique, and though it wasn’t perfect, it definitely is a book that sticks with you. I wish there was a little more clarity around some aspects of the authorial intent, especially in regards to the races of his world and their ties to our real world. I read them as being above board so to speak, but this is an area where I am certainly not an expert. I am curious to hear what anyone else who reads it thinks as well, so please do drop a thought in the comments if you do!
Rating: A Practical Guide To Conquering The World – 8.5/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.