|THOSE ABOVE (The Empty Throne Book 1)
Daniel Polansky (www.danielpolansky.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
It is almost thirty years since the war between mankind and Those Above, the godlike creatures who live at the top of the great mountain city, The Roost. Now, as the warlike Aelerian people contemplate breaking the truce that has seen peace reign over the continent since those terrible days, a second war seems inevitable. Bas, general of Aeleria’s great Western Army and the only human ever to have defeated one of Those Above in single combat, has been promoted, and tasked with raising a new legion who will lead the charge; behind him is Eudokia, the most powerful woman in the country, whose husband was killed during the first war, and who has a thirst for revenge; in the lowest rung of The Roost, young Thistle progresses from petty criminal to murderer, and finds himself at the centre of a rebellion still very much in its infancy; at the top of the mountain, all but oblivious to the creatures with whom they share the continent, Those Above believe themselves untouchable, inviolate.
I fell in love with Daniel Polansky’s The Straight Razor Cure within the first handful of pages when I read it back in 2012. The unique mix of fantasy and hard-boiled crime appealed to me, and the central character, Warden, demanded that I keep coming back for more. The Low Town trilogy went from strength to strength (to the point where I was unable to write a review of the final book, She Who Waits, because of how completely Polansky broke me in the process of laying out his story). It was, then, with some trepidation that I picked up Those Above – it, and the series that it begins, The Empty Throne, has a lot to live up to. Focussing more on the fantasy, and ditching the crime in favour of an ancient Roman vibe, it is, in many ways, a much different beast to Polansky’s first trilogy, while still keeping the hard core that made those books so enjoyable.
The first major difference is the novel’s scope, both in terms of the area it covers, and also in the number of point-of-view characters Polansky uses to tell the story. The story is told from four key points of view: Bas, Eudokia, Thistle and Calla, the human servant of the Aubade, one of the most powerful of Those Above. It’s interesting to note that, while we get dispatches from the lords of the First Rung through Calla, we never really get to see their direct point of view. For the others, the spread gives us an interesting insight into this new world of Polansky’s and the various types of people that populate it. The most interesting part of this world is The Roost itself, a mountain city that is split into five rungs, with the inhabitants split according to rank or status: Those Above live in the first rung, at the mountain’s peak, while society’s dregs (which includes young Thistle) populate the city’s lowest, or Fifth, Rung.
The history of the creatures that live in the First Rung is scarce, though we know that they are a long-lived people who differ physically from humans in many ways: their size, their four fingers, to name but a few. Their politics and rituals are shown through the eyes of Calla, and feel slightly less alien to us, the reader, because of her own closeness to the Aubade, and familiarity with their ways. Their lack of emotion, and their superior approach to humans – they are to humans what humans are to bugs – are a frightening concept and lead to some beautifully-wrought scenes of horror as the novel progresses.
Outside of these godlike creatures, Polansky presents us humanity in all its glory: the field general and his men; the political machinations in Aeleria’s capital city, machinations that would give George R. R. Martin nightmares; and the childhood gangs and violence spawned by poverty in the lower reaches of The Roost, which are a stark contrast to the conditions deeper within the city.
As I mentioned earlier, Those Above has a dark, hard core, a gritty sense of reality that can often be missing from fantasy novels, and a voice that is unmistakably that of the brilliant writer who brought us Warden’s adventures in Low Town. If I have one complaint, it’s that Those Above feels like what it is: the first book in a fantasy series that needs to put everything in place in order for the reader to feel at home. There is plenty of action, but it takes second place to the world-building and chess-like manoeuvring, and there is little more than a token gesture at encapsulating a complete plot within the confines of the book’s four hundred-odd pages. Not a shock, by any means, to fans of this kind of epic fantasy – and let me make that point clear, this is epic – but worth knowing at the outset. That said, what does exist within those four hundred-odd pages is pure gold, compelling character-building, world-building and story-telling by a master of his art, and more than enough to have me coming back to Aeleria and The Roost for many, many more visits.
Dark fantasy with a decidedly military bent, Those Above is the perfect opener for Daniel Polansky’s career beyond Low Town. With his unmistakeable voice and his highly original new world, he draws the reader slowly in until it’s impossible to put the book down and escape back to reality. A brilliant start to what is sure to be one of the fantasy epics of all time, Those Above is the work of an author at the top of his game and brings with it the promise of a lot more to come.