How To Rule An Empire And Get Away With It, by K.L. Parker
I can see what this novel is trying to do. I think in the right hands, a good film could be made out of this book, with the premise, as part of a series about the fate of a besieged and cultured city that cannot help but remind me of Byzantium or Gondolin as far as cities withstanding epic sieges but which ultimately meet an unkind fate. The author clearly has some sort of longstanding interests in history and fantasy, and this particular work of historical fantasy is one that has a lot of resonance with previous works, but which shows the author trying too hard to make an unsympathetic character the center of things. It appears to be a frequent tendency of contemporary fiction to not want brave or decent sort of people to be at the middle, but characters that contemporary readers can identify with, who are seldom brave or good or decent themselves, and so who need unsympathetic antiheroes because they can no longer apparently identify with genuinely heroic figures. As a result, this book discusses a society in a late stage of decadence while itself demonstrating that the contemporary reader likely shares that quality as well.
The book itself, as a novel, is about 350 pages long, and shows how it is that a lying playwright who had made his way in the theater in the society’s equivalent of Hollywood is kidnapped by some conspirators and more or less coerced into pretending to be the person who was pretending to run the city. This sets off a chain of affairs where Notker seeks to get help from a woman he is in love with who is nowhere near as good as he thinks (which is proven over and over again throughout the story), learns how to manipulate people into doing what they should be doing and proves himself to be a surprisingly capable emperor, perhaps even surprising himself, even if he cannot gain the respect of either his lady-love or his mother, both of whom tend to be rather insulting and condescending to him. But the novel turns surprisingly dark as there are coups and countercoups and the narrator is viewed merely as a figurehead until he is able to come up with a plan to save himself as well as his city, in a way that I will not spoil as it would remove much of the drama of reading this interesting book.
Indeed, were it not for the fact that the narrator is viewed so unsympathetically by the author and by key characters within the story, this book would have been even better. There is something immensely clever in the way that the narrator is able to deal tactically with the political and military problems he is faced while also thinking of a way to save the city’s population from its inevitable eventual defeat, as he is aware that defenders only have to fail once while besiegers are inevitably victorious if they have enough time to besiege their enemies at their leisure. The novel itself brings together drama, discussions of politics, trade, family matters like marriage and raising children, and the destruction to one’s spirit that comes from being an emperor, something that leads the narrator to eventually show some sort of consideration for the difficulties faced by those who rule, even if by that time he finds himself in charge of a city which was once part of a great empire but is now trying to stave off a seemingly inevitable destruction by a cruel and resourceful enemy who reminds one of the Turks.