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. 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.
Those Above had to have been one of my most anticipated reads for not just the first six months of 2015, but for the entire year. Daniel Polansky’s previous trilogy, Low Town, was just amazingly good and its ending just floored me, and I mean flat-out, ugly-crying floored me. So to see where he would go next was very exciting. It also made it hard for Polansky to live up to my expectations, because the bar was set high. But he delivered the goods and he did so in style. Those Above was amazing.
Set on a world where humanity is governed by a race of long-lived, exceptionally beautiful people, who have put us under their heel and do not intend to let us up out of the mud, Those Above mainly focusses on two locations. One is The Roost, the city where the long-lived ones, generally called Those Above, reside and the other is the capital of Aeleria, a Romanesque Empire, which is heading for open conflict with Those Above at breakneck speed. We see some of the other territories in the human lands, but only as it pertains to our Aelerian characters. I really liked these locations and the way Polansky goes about setting them up, especially The Roost. Aeleria is mostly interesting for its politics and society, but The Roost is interesting for its physicality.
The Roost is literally a mountain in the middle of the continent. Those Above reside at its top in a place that is described by its residents as heavenly. Yet when you travel down the mountain from what is known as the First Rung, you travel through different societal strata of human servants to Those Above, until you arrive at the Fifth Rung, which comprise the worst of the slums, much of the criminal element of The Roost, and the docks that are the gateway of all goods arriving in the city. It is here that we see the cost of the perfection Those Above in the First Rung enjoy. The inhabitants of the Fifth Rung are constantly surrounded by the noise of the suck, the system of pipes that pumps water to the top of the Roost. There is a large net of waterways that covers the Roost, but only Those Above are allowed to use them, so everyone else is forced to trudge up and down and around the mountain to get anywhere. The Roost is the physical representation of the stranglehold Those Above have on the humans in the surrounding lands. People, Those Below and the people living in the lands that are part of the dominion of Those Above, are terrified of them as they are ruthless and very skilled warriors.
Polansky tells his tale through four different viewpoints. They provide a wide scope; there are two male and two female viewpoints, two are located in the Roost and two are Aelerian. We have Aelarian matriarch Eudokia, Aelerian general Bas, First Rung servant to one of the most prominent members of the Roost, Calla, and Fifth Rung street rat Thistle. They’re all fascinating characters, but I admit that I’m mostly smitten with Eudokia. I just loved her conviction and her ruthless manipulations of the great game of politics in Aeleria. She’s always three steps ahead of everyone and rightfully a bit smug about that. Her’s is a tale of revenge and the desire to avenge her losses, of her husband and the future she’d imagined, upon Those Above. Bas is an Aelerian war hero because of the previous war against the masters of the Roost and while he isn’t afraid to fight them, he isn’t raring to go off to battle either. I liked his gruff, world-weary acceptance of his fate and his full expectation to die in his harness so to speak. He shines in his interactions with his men, however, and I really liked his officers, especially Hamilcar. A Dycian, a survivor of the war that made his nation a part of the Aelerian Empire, he has sworn allegiance to Bas, but is still somewhat of a loose cannon, genius, but unpredictable. I loved his raucous humour and his quick wit.
Hamilcar is also one of a number of PoC explicitly identified as such, which I liked. Polansky creates a diverse cast of characters, with the majority being of a darker complexion than the standard Northern European we often get in epic fantasy. In fact, the only main character that is clearly labeled as blond and blue-eyed is Calla, High Servant to the Aubade, one of the most prominent members of Those Above. Calla is also the one whose privilege is explicitly challenged and who has to come to grips with the fact that she is actually greatly privileged and that the world is a far darker place than she had ever imagined. Her mirror is Thistle, our last viewpoint. He lives on the Fifth Rung and it is through him we see how awful and alien Those Above truly are. While I love Eudokia and Hamilcar, Thistle and Calla’s story arcs are perhaps the more powerful and this made them quite compelling as characters as well.
I absolutely loved Those Above. Polansky created a cracking story; one that at times moves – a tad too – slowly and builds up the politics brilliantly, before unexpectedly moving into brutal action. But not only did he create a great story and wonderful characters, Polansky does so in a style and prose that is incredibly well-crafted. Polansky is a skilled word smith and, in my opinion, one of the most underrated authors currently active in the field. Those Above is a brilliant start to the Empty Throne duology and I can’t wait to read its conclusion. I devoured Those Above and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it high on the list of favourites at the end of the year.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.