Monday, 14 March 2016

Book Review | Those Above by Daniel Polansky

They enslaved humanity three thousand years ago. Tall, strong, perfect, superhuman and near immortal, they rule from their glittering palaces in the eternal city in the centre of the world. They are called Those Above by their subjects. They enforce their will with fire and sword.

Twenty five years ago mankind mustered an army and rose up against them, only to be slaughtered in a terrible battle. Hope died that day, but hatred survived...

Now, whispers of another revolt are beginning to stir in the hearts of the oppressed: a woman, widowed in the war, who has dedicated her life to revenge; the general, the only man to ever defeat one of Those Above in single combat, summoned forth to raise a new legion; and a boy killer who rises from the gutter to lead an uprising in the capital.


They say money makes the world go round, and maybe it does—but for who? For me and for you, or only the few?

According to Oxfam, the wealthiest one percent of the people on planet Earth now have more moolah than the rest of the population put together. Redistributing said wealth would certainly solve a lot of problems; it would save a lot of lives, and set right a lot of wrongs. Sadly, it simply isn't in the one percent's interests to do what needs doing, basically because it would make money meaningless, and money is what gives the the moneyed meaning.

The bottom line is that to have haves, you have to have have-nots. Just as darkness makes daylight distinct, and summer would be insignificant without winter, the poor are a prerequisite of the existence of the rich, thus the latter need to keep the former at their feet—financially in the first instance, and factually in Daniel Polansky's devastating new duology.

Those Above, or else the Eternal, are the one percent of this manifestly metaphorical milieu, and they make their eminence altogether evident by literally lording it over the impoverished populace of the lower rungs of the Roost:
Since the Founding, when Those Above had forsworn the wandering of their ancestors to create and populate the Roost, to leave the summit of the City was considered, if not quite blasphemous, at the very least extremely distasteful. The Eternal lived in the sky, or as close to it as they could reach, and in general left the First Rung only to make war. (p.165)
The advantages of living on First Rung are near enough numberless. There, Those Above—and the few mere mortals who wait on them without question—are tended to with an excess of tenderness. Every meal is a feast, medical care means most mortal wounds are mere inconveniences, and advances in technologies unknown to Those Below have taken every difficulty out of the day-to-day. Theirs is a world, in a word, of wonder; such wonder that even indentured servants like Calla—one of the overarching narrative's four protagonists—cannot imagine anything eclipsing it.

Calla had never left the Roost—had not, in fact, ever descended below the Third Rung. But her lack of experience, in this case at least, did not make her wrong. There was nowhere in the world to compete with the paradise Those Above had built, and one did not need to have visited every backwater burg to know that for a truth. One needed only to open one's eyes. (p.40)
And just as the difference between their living conditions depicts the division between the haves and the have-nots of The Empty Throne's secondary-world setting, so too are Those Above set apart from Those Below by their (some might say) superior appearance:
Broadly speaking they resembled Calla's own species—two legs and two feet, two eyes, a head where you'd expect one to be. But somehow what was similar about them seemed only to accentuate the differences. It was not just that the Eternal were taller and more robust than humans, limbs long and even and fine. Not that their hands ended in four digits rather than five. Not the oddly oval shape of their faces, not the tiny, hooked noses, not ever their eyes. monochrome pools without sclera or iris. Not that they smelled different, though they did, a slightly sweet, not altogether unpleasant fragrance, something like dried cinnamon. Not their hair, which from a distance resembled a bundle of vines spilled backwards over their heads, but up close was soft and fuzzy as velvet. There was an ineffable otherness about them that seemed more than the sum of these relatively trivial variations, as if, despite being bipedal and roughly hominid, they had no more in common with Calla than a hawk, or a stone, or the sky. (p.46)
Largely by characterising their sybaritic behaviours as bird-like—for they are frequently seen to swoop and soar and perch and preen—Polansky doubles down on the otherness of the Eternal. Alienating as this approach is initially, it is eventually developed beyond the binary, and in the interim it's effective enough, especially as alternating chapters set Those Above's lives of lovely luxury against the squalorous struggles of the poor souls below.

Take Thistle, for instance. As a street urchin from the fifth rung of the Roost who has to steal to make ends meet, it isn't long before the boy becomes embroiled in a gang war that threatens to be the end of him. Thistle is only dragged out of this downward spiral when he witnesses the events that finally set The Empty Throne's story in motion, which is to say the symbolic slaughter of a hawk during the Anamnesis, an annual ritual of submission:
What had begun here would echo out in the weeks and months to come, there would be casks of blood to add to what the bird had given, Thistle was as certain of that as he had ever been of anything. (p.143)
The prospect is obscenely appealing, even. It gives Thistle a mission that will see him through to book two: to make Those Above pay, come what may, for mistreating his people over the years.

Whereas Calla's chapters are classic high fantasy, complete with incredible creatures and otherworldly water features, Thistle's are oh-so-low—dirty, duplicitous and downright distressing—to the extent that they'll feel ineffably familiar to readers of the Low Town trilogy that made Polansky an author to watch.

The militaristic fiction of Bas Alyates' part of the narrative scratches a still different itch. When we meet the Caracal—so-called because he's the only man to have killed one of Those Above in single combat—he and his army are marching on the Marchers, the better to bolster the borders of the Aelerian Commonwealth. The thema he commands is "an engine that ate up men and spat out corpses—it had no time for gallantry." (p.66) It deals, instead, in death—which is all Bas knows. To wit, when he's recalled to the capital of his country—to train soldiers the Powers That Be intend to send to make a ruin of the Roost—he finds the ground under his feet fleeting:
Duplicity was not the sole province of the capital, Bas knew, but the honest inheritance of the entire species. Still, there was something about that particular brand of falseness as was practiced in the capital that set his teeth grinding against each other and turned his hands into fists. At least on the Marches you might knife a man for lying to you—here it was the coin of the realm, you were the odd one for not accepting it. (p.231)
Having lived her entire life in the Commonwealth's capital, Eudokia Aurelia is an old hand at the same Machiavellian machinations that baffle Bas. As mastermind of the promised conflict between Those Above and Those Below, and with a decent distance to travel before we actually arrive at that, her share of the story is, in the first volume of this duology, all posturing and politicking. It's decently done, I dare say, and Polansky does give the Revered Mother a few obstacles to overcome, including a betrayal, a betrothal and an assassination attempt. Unfortunately, all this is undermined by the sense that until her perspective has served some purpose, her security is as good as assured.

The length of this review should be your first clue that there's a lot going on in Those Above. It boasts an alarmingly large cast of characters doing a dizzying number of different things in various nefarious places for a proliferation of relatively imperative purposes. Polansky sets so many irons in the fire, in fact, that his book can only burn slowly. But when at last a spark catches, it has all the fuel of a furnace... or, perhaps, a pyre. The host of folks we've gotten to know finally get up and go as a single, self-assured stitch draws together a veritable spiderweb of plot threads—all while the world Polansky has so meticulously built starts to break apart.

So there's not just a lot going on in Those Above, there's a lot to like. Alas, there's also a lot that runs the risk of leaving readers feeling... let's say short-changed. Because as awesome as what there is of it is, it's only half of a whole. It has a beginning, a bit of middle, and then, at its most engrossing—it's over.

Splitting The Empty Throne down the middle in this manner—turning what seems to me a single long novel into two shorter volumes by adding more than a pinch of padding—has a number of knock-on effects, not one of which benefits Those Above. The pace, as established, is markedly impacted; there's so much scene-setting that it feels well out of whack with what this clearly abbreviated narrative needs; and the less said about the ending the better.

As a demonstration of Polansky's range and ridiculous ambition, Those Above is rather remarkable, and if you're able to read it immediately before Those Below, you should do, to be sure, because the second half of The Empty Throne makes good on almost all of the first's failings. As a novel in and of itself, however, recommending it—much as I might like to—doesn't feel quite right.


Those Above
by Daniel Polansky

UK Publication: February 2015, Hodder & Stoughton

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