Title: How to Rule and Empire and Get Away With It
Author: K. J. Parker
Publication date: August 18, 2020
Summary: Notker is an actor, impressionist, and playwright. And a liar. This is his story of how he came to rule an empire and get away with it. With his nearly uncanny resemblance to the most popular guy in the besieged city, he finds himself playing the role of a lifetime, and somehow finding himself leading the entire city, almost all of whom don’t even know who, exactly, he is. All while things are falling out of the sky.
And…I did it again. This is the sequel to a book that takes place seven years ago when the siege started, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City. You guessed it; I didn’t read the first book, though I think I should because this one was fun, humorous, and I just really liked Notker. I feel like I only missed out on some details, so it was easy to catch up with what was going on. All in all, a really fun, easy to read book that went too fast.
The Characters: The Liar
The characters were so much fun. Since How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It is told by Notker, there was an amusing lack of gravity to all of the characters, as well as the story, that just made them into what felt like fun caricatures. Sure, some of them were more serious, but I kept picturing them grinning kind of like Cheshire cats, mysterious yet silly looking.
Of course I adored Notker. It’s impossible to get to know him extremely well since he’s the one telling the story. He was honest and funny, all while lying through his teeth to everyone else. And sometimes telling the truth, even when the people around him didn’t want to hear it. I loved that he could get away with saying just about everything and almost coming off as almost an idiot. It was fun to see his role in the city change, which, in small ways, changed his personal character, but he somehow managed to stay good ol’ Notker.
Most amusingly was how Notker wrote about the others around him, like Hodda and the various men who either worked for him or ordered him to do things so they wouldn’t have to kill them. They each had their designated role, but also felt like accessory characters, every single one of them. Notker was clearly in the lead role and everyone else was just supportive. Either Notker was a very good liar, or all the world really is a stage and Notker was just on one of the largest ever.
What I really loved, though, was that this is a city of black people (it took me a while to figure it out even though they were referring to whiteface in the theater circle, as opposed to the blackface we all know far too well) that white invaders have laid siege to. I loved that all of it, the entire story, pointed to typical fantasy elements and behaviors you’d see in fantasy where just about every leading character is white. But the lead characters here are not white. I loved that it showcased black people as being no different than anyone else in fantasy, which makes this seem like a very timely read considering the upheaval the US has been going through when it comes to racism.
The Setting: The Stage
Almost all of How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It takes place in a single city. There’s an island, and mention of other far off places, but most of it is in a besieged city. It felt like a very well-thought out city, but that could be because it was all set up and built in the first novel, which I did not read. I do wonder if I missed out on something, if, maybe, I lost out on some comprehension and richness of the world building because I failed to read the first book, but it still felt beautiful and fascinating with a rich culture and history. I did have a bit of a hard time envisioning what, exactly, this place might look like, but just found it so fascinating that I couldn’t help but be delighted. What world building there was here was built right into the story, into Notker’s narrative as it was necessary, so it felt like it was being built up around me, albeit in stones that had already been laid.
The Plot: The Almost Ridiculous Story That Somehow Works
How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It was funny and delightful. I adored Notker and how he told his tale, and was tickled at the end when I realized I couldn’t quite trust his version as he is, of course, an actor and not a writer. It made me wonder what he might have left out because it didn’t fit his personal narrative, if, maybe, he took credit for something he didn’t do. While that normally bothers me because it feels shallow and egotistical, Notker is unapologetically an actor and the whole world is, literally, his stage. I loved Notker, so of course I loved his story.
This is about a fairly adequately talented actor who is given the role of a lifetime, and ends up ruling an empire and getting away with it. It has some twists and turns that were perfectly timed as the book is divided into 3 acts, which also makes me wonder if maybe some of it was exaggerated for the 3 act structure, and because Notker is not a writer. The interesting thing was that, when I was immersed in the story, I really had no idea where it was going. It was a continuous series of something bad happening and then Notker somehow solving it and saving his own neck in the process, so I had no clue what was really going on. At the end, though, it was just so simple. It’s How to Rule and Empire and Get Away With It. Not that I’d actually recommend this method to anyone.
Another thing I found fascinating about this book was the violence. I dislike violence in books unless it’s actually very necessary to the story and not at all gratuitous. Well, there’s actually quite a bit of violence here, but I…kind of liked it. Oh, I didn’t like that bad, painful things happened, but it was somehow…fun? It wasn’t grotesque or glorifying. It wasn’t overly bloody with lots of lost limbs and heads. Painful, yes, but amusing to read. I guess I just have to remember Notker, an actor, is the one telling the story so there would be some theatrical finesse to it.
Overall: So Much Fun
This was such a fun book. I adored Notker. Because this is an actor telling his side of the story, it was kind of difficult to get to know the other characters, but he was just so charming that I didn’t care. The story was humorous peppered with some quite serious bits that gave How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It a terrific balance of telling a fun story and moving it along at a great pace. Overall, a ton of fun, and maybe I should go back and check out the first book.
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Thank you to Angela Man at Orbit for a free e-copy. All opinions expressed are my own.