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Book Review: Those Below by Daniel Polansky

Those Below - Daniel Polansky

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For centuries beyond counting, humanity has served the Others, god-like Eternals who rule from their cloud-capped mountain-city, building a civilization of unimagined 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.

 

Thanks to Hachette Australia for providing a review copy.

 

So, firstly I thought I should let you know that I am currently trying out speech to text software, so if there are any extreme mistakes, I am blaming the software, and not myself.

 

It’s only fair! :)

 

I am trying to think of how to explain the many ways The Empty Throne series has impressed me. Those Below in particular, I believe, is a masterful piece of fantasy literature. Firstly, there is Polansky’s writing style. I don’t know if he sits at a desk, and ponders over every word that he puts in a sentence, or it simply passes from brain to page, but every word used is absolute perfection. Every word encapsulates the exact sound, feeling and attitude that the scene requires. It’s almost hard to explain, how precisely each word fits; it’s like a jigsaw piece snapping into place. No, this isn’t purple prose, it’s the work of a writer that has a firm grasp on how to use vocabulary to its fullest potential.

 

 He also manipulates the use of grammar, to create the exact amounts of urgency, and tension, within a paragraph that is required. This is particularly evident in scenes of battle, or high action, in which he uses punctuation to instil true forward movement and momentum into the scene. I’ve seen other authors try to do this before, but none have actually mastered it quite like Polansky has in The Empty Throne series.

 

Another outstanding achievement, is Polansky’s ability to create tension. I don’t mean tension in certain places, or in certain situations, I mean throughout the whole novel. Usually, I prefer my books to crescendo, but Polansky left that behind in the first book of the series, Those Above, and seemingly decided to have the readers on the edges of their seat, from go to woe in Those Below. It feels as though he has each character walking on a tight rope, and he could flick any one of them off it, at any given time. I rarely feel the need to flip to the back page of a book, but there were plenty of times in Those Below that I was truly tempted, due to the tension leaving me in this weird state of anxiety about what the outcome might be. It actually works incredibly well, and it kept me devouring pages long after I should’ve been asleep.

 

That being said, the pacing in this book can feel slightly wonky at times, due to the changes in point of view. It’s not a major complaint, but it is slightly jolting when you go from a back street knife fight, straight into, say, a dress shop choosing fabrics. It’s not an uncommon thing to happen in any book where each point of view is so glaringly different,  but it is slightly more noticeable in this, because of that high tension level.

 

The characters in Those Below, aren’t particularly likeable, and all are approaching the final destination from different angles. Yet, each has a quality that can be described as endearing: Pyre for his complete conviction. Eudokia for her intelligence, and cunning. Calla for her dedication, and willingness to die for the sake of her master’s race.  Bas for his no bull shit attitude, who is hard in the face of battle, yet can still mourn a friend. However, there is no sense that the reader should be inclined to be on any character’s side. None of these characters, are good characters. They are as grey as a winter sky, and if you’re expecting otherwise, you’ll be severely disappointed.

 

The nitty-gritty, the stuff happening below the surface plotline, is actually quite unnerving. The four main characters, could each be representatives of the archetypal figures, that have created the world that we live in today. A man who is marginalised, denigrated, desperate, and  is an easy target for what we would call becoming “radicalised”, simply because finally someone is willing to accept him, and give him the power he’s been denied from birth. Another who has power and privilege, and seeks no more, but refuses to share it. A woman, who to prove her power within a patriarchal society, can only do so by claiming power over everything in her path*. A man, who is simply fighting, because he’s been told to, but has no desire for power at all. And the results are disastrous, for all the characters involved. It’s quite chilling to read Polansky’s bleak outlook, and believe that it could be absolutely relevant in “real life”. But, it is absolutely believable, and absolutely relevant.

 

I will admit, that is much as I love this book, this series isn’t for everybody. It is one of the darkest novels I have read. The resolution is harrowing, and it is that way because of its believability, even though it is fantasy. This book is bleak, brutal, and will leave you with the taste of copper on your tongue, until you can finally put it aside. But, It is so very hard to put aside.

 

However, those are the exact reasons that I adored it. Sometimes, it’s only the taste of copper that will finally jolt you awake.

 

Verdict:

 

 

I eagerly await the next Polanksy novel, whatever it may be..

 

*NB. This does not mean that the book is some kind of MRA “Gah! The wimmins are trying to kill the mens” propaganda. This is a “don’t underestimate a person due to their gender, appearance,  or age.” book. The characters are all well balanced in their machinations, no matter the reasoning behind them.