I need a continuous dosis of K.J. Parker to brighten up my day. When I grabbed that eArc of How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It I found out that I should first read this novel because it is the first in the series. What a happy accident, as I enjoyed this fantasy comedy greatly and highly recommend reading it – at least if you like snarky first person perspective by an elder protagonist Orhan who happens to be an engineer and talks a lot about nerdy stuff like siege engines, bridge building and the likes, but also treachery, forgery, and coinage – because the character isn’t exactly a poster child of honesty.
You won’t find a single dragon or magic spell in this fantasy and for all what it takes, it could be read as a historical fiction – if it would be set in our world.
Orhan is the colonel of bridge building engineers for the capital city of an empire Robur similar to classic Rome. They try to stay away from fighting, because Orhan is also a coward besides of cheating and lying. And he is humble about his own abilities and makes a hugely sympathetic and interesting flawed protagonist. The story is mainly character-driven and I couldn’t help it to laugh very often about Orhan’s self criticism, witty and sarcastic remarks, and fascinated by the genius ways he solved upcoming problems of all sorts.
He is a very unlikely person in Robur, because he is a “milky face” in a racistic blue-faced civilization. There you have it, the mirror to our days. But when the city came under siege, there was no one else to take up the flag. Given that it was absolutely unprepared and the opponent side was very intelligent, you can imagine that the narration was very fast paced and pressed. Tension all over the place, two opposing crime bands within the city leaves Orhan to juggle the forces. It is a perfectly paced page-turner, very approachable, and nearly reads itself – think of a Lies of Locke Lamora. This is not exactly typical for the author, as he usually writes differently.
While being focused on the main protagonist Orhan, it also has some brilliant secondary characters, some of them female. Parker gives them some great and even razor-sharp dialogues, one of them very memorable. I won’t give you the details, but you’ll surely notice when you read it.
I’m a sucker for unreliable narrators – any fan of Gene Wolfe has to be – and this is a great example, that they can be enormous fun to read, while always wondering how much you’re being lied at your face.
If you like unreliable narrators, fast paced engineering nerdism in a lighthearted fantasy setting without supernaturalism, then give this book a try.
And if you want to try a couple of other Parker narrations, I have some reviews around:
and of course the second book in this series: