Thursday, 17 March 2016

Book Review | Those Below by Daniel Polansky

For centuries beyond counting, humanity has served the Others, god-like Eternals who rule from their cloud-capped mountain-city, building a civilization of unimaginable beauty and unchecked viciousness. But all that is about to change.

Bas Alyates, grizzled general of a thousand battles, has assembled a vast army with which to contend with the might of Those Above. Eudokia, Machiavellian matriarch and the power behind the Empty Throne, travels to the Roost, nominally to play peacemaker... but in fact to inspire the human population toward revolt. Deep in the dark byways of the mountain's lower tiers, the urchin Pyre leads a band of fanatical revolutionaries in acts of terrorism against their inhuman oppressors. 

Against them, Calla, handmaiden of the Eternals' king, fights desperately to stave off the rising tide of violence which threatens to destroy her beloved city.


The conflict between the privileged and the impoverished comes to a hell of a head in the concluding volume of Daniel Polansky's deterministic duology: an inconceivably bleak book about the inevitable effects of generations of oppression that makes the most of the fastidious foundation laid in the flat first half of The Empty Throne as a whole.

Happily, because the bulk of the busywork is behind us, Those Below is a far more satisfying work of fantasy than Those Above. Its world of bird-beings and the human beasts bound to them has been built, the backstories of its expansive cast of characters established, and as regards its narrative, all the pieces of Polansky's game are plainly in play. Be that as it may, some rearranging remains...

A handful of years have passed since the Aubade overpowered the previous Prime in single combat. Now, Calla's meditative master really does rule the Roost—the highest rung of the hollowed-out mountain Those Above call home—but his people are still struggling to accept that the Aelerian Commonwealth, under the Revered Mother and her infamous man-at-arms Bas, represents a real threat.

As one of the Eternal's pet people puts it to Pyre, a misbegotten boy become a symbol of the unrest rising from among the lower rungs, "the mote of grime you scrub from your eye in the morning is of more concern to you than you and all your people are to them." (p.126) The absolute arrogance of the Eternal could be their ultimate undoing, to be sure; equally, their unequivocal conviction that they are "superior in every fashion that one creature might be to another" (ibid.) could be something of a saving grace at the end of the day. Who can say?

One way or the other, war is coming.

But with the Aelerian army still some distance from its eventual destination, perhaps the new Prime has enough time to bring the rest of the Roost around. After all:
War is a sluggard, war is a lumbering, shambling, slow-footed behemoth, war is a thousand men making a thousand small decisions slowly and generally unwisely. Nothing ever begins on time, no one is ever where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there. War is an overloaded wagon with a creaking axle, mud-stuck, pulled forward by a beat-up mule. Except every so often when it is not—when it is transformed into a charging stallion, or a downward-streaking hawk. Bas sometimes supposed, amidst the endless drudgery of his day-to-day tasks, turning boys into killers and killers into corpses, that he continued on as the Caracal simply because there was no other alternative; and then one of these single sterling seconds would arrive, and Bas would recall his purpose. (p.31)
That sense of purpose is essentially what sets Those Below so far apart from—and so far above—its overburdened precursor. It might well be that Bas is "quite the least imaginative man in existence," (p.302) but even he can see, as Eudokia Aurelia cautions Calla when their paths cross early on in this novel, that "what is to come will be terrible beyond all reckoning." (p.276)

And it is. It really, really is. Not least because of the Revered Mother, who comes alive at last—after spending all of Those Above maneuvering if not mindlessly then sometimes seemingly so—now that the larger part of her plan to exterminate the Eternals has been laid bare:
Not for the first time Eudokia felt the fear and the secret thrill of competing against opponents of whom she remained essentially ignorant, a rare pleasure after a lifetime spent dissecting human motivations with the callous efficiency of a butcher with a hog. (p.136-137)
Thistle, too, is renewed. Having been "consecrated in the service of something a thousand times larger than myself, something so vast and so beautiful that before it my life is as a scrap of paper near a flame," (p.7) he is reborn and indeed renamed, for the boy who was Thistle has become the man called Pyre. The transition between the two characters—and two dramatically different characters they are—is, alas, rather jarring, excepting several scenes when the latter has cause to recall the life he's sacrificed in service of the Five-Fingers' fanaticism. These regrettably rare moments are exceptionally emotive; they feature Pyre at his most potent.

Of the four folks on whose shoulders the story of The Empty Throne is told, Calla is least changed at the beginning of Those Below, but following a reaffirmation of her faith in the Eternal—an assertion that she feels "as deep and profound a love for her home as did any Four-Finger" (p.17)—even she seems surer-footed. In any case, on the basis of that belief, she's dispatched by her master to infiltrate the uprising Pyre is a pivotal part of—an investigation which serves to draw the disparate threads of the text together.

And not before time, right?

Truth be told, though Those Below is nowhere near as slow as the first half of the overarching narrative, it's... patiently paced; surprisingly so given how close we seem, at the start of this second part, to the climactic clash between the Eternals and the Aelerian Commonwealth. But appearances can be deceiving, and war, as the Caracal asserted earlier, is an unwieldy weapon.

Nevertheless, the effect, when everything does come together, is incredible—more incredible even than the equivalent moment in Those Above. But however devastating the destination, this is a book about what it takes to get there; about the journey we all of us undertake. Juxtaposed, the journey of Those Below is much improved from the treadmill its predecessor represented, largely because the company the second volume of the duology requires readers to keep is closer to its formerly formless goal, so the whole is far more focused.

Book two of The Empty Throne also benefits immensely from the wealth of worldbuilding Polansky crammed into book one. Without this, the events of Those Below would be robbed of context and texture; elements that prove imperative in parsing the point these novels nod towards in name and in nature: that there are, that there always was, that there always will be... those above and those below.

And on that note, though this is by leaps and bounds the better half of The Empty Throne, it'd be better still, in my book, if it had been whole from the get-go.


Those Below
by Daniel Polansky

UK Publication: March 2016, Hodder & Stoughton

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