Those Above by Daniel Polansky

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Rating 9.0/10
An intricately woven story full of wonders and misery.

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Those Above is the first novel in The Empty Throne series. At the start I wasn't sure what I had let myself in for, with the prologue and the first chapter focusing on two very different battles, I had to wonder whether this was going to be the whole story. Luckily this was not the case and I was soon reading about a world that in just one continent had a variety of different people, societies and cultures. This novel shifts between political intrigue, magnificent machines, family, war and everything in between.

There are two main powers that have been adversaries in the past but are currently at peace with each other. Firstly there are Those Above, also known as Eternal or The Others who live on the first rung of The Roost, far up in the sky, who see themselves as beyond the cares of the short-lived. Those Above are humanoid but are taller, more beautiful and graceful than humans. They also age differently with their lifespans lasting hundreds of years. Those Above rule The Roost and see themselves as caretakers of the continent. The Eternal have a number of human servants which deal with the day to day running of their estates on the first rung. There are five rungs in The Roost with each rung becoming poorer and denser in population. The technology of Those Above is more advanced than that of the human population and has a steampunk feel to it. The other main power on this continent is the Aelerian Commonwealth who keep expanding and conquering territory across the continent overseen by Those Above. The Aelerian Commonwealth seems structured similarly to The Roman Empire as it is run via a senate, for the people, but is also quite corrupt, with most of the people posturing and bribing their way to positions. The Aelerians fought The Others twenty-five years ago and still see them as demons.

The book is split between four different character perspectives. There is Bas, the leader of the Western Army of the Aelerian Commonwealth, also known as The God Killer as he defeated one of The Others in single combat the last time the Aelerians fought them. Bas is a weathered man, who is comfortable being with his troops on the battlefield. Calla is the seneschal for The Aubade, Lord of the Red Keep. Calla is very privileged and although she knows she lives to serve, the system set up in The Roost works so well that she doesn't realise that she is just as trapped as those on the  rungs below her. Domina Eudokia is complicated as she puts on a benign face to the world, but unbeknownst to most of the population has spent the last 25 years pulling the strings of the Senate. Lastly, there is Thistle, a boy of 16 who lives on the fifth rung, not knowing where his life is going to lead, only knowing what he doesn't want to do. There is a darkness inside him that he hasn't learnt to control.

In Those Above, we see many different cultures interacting and the way they treat the women in these societies tells you a lot about them as a whole. This can be seen in the differences between Calla and Eudokia. Although Calla is a servant, she has more freedom and equality than most of the other female characters in the story, as everything she knows has been learnt from The Others. The Eternal leader, known as The Prime, is female and they do not see any difference between their males and females, as they are all ferocious on the battlefield and treat each other as equals. Eudokia, on the other hand, is not able to stand for the Senate as a woman but has slowly been building her own power base behind closed doors so that she controls what the Senate decides. It is a lot of fun to see how Eudokia operates and how far her influence extends as she crushes those who oppose or endanger her plans.

My favourite character is Thistle, starting as a disenfranchised boy who with his friends live for the easy score to gain alcohol and money for cigarettes. As Thistle slowly finds his place not only on the fifth rung but maybe also into a larger movement that may change The Roost forever, he grows as a character as he struggles to come to terms with the events that happen around him. Thistle's awareness is juxtaposed with that of Calla who, for all her knowledge, is supremely naive as to the ways of the world, how fragile her position is and how meaningless her life is to those she is pledged to serve. The humans in The Roost are so conditioned to their life there, that even when they are at the bottom they never consider leaving The Roost, although they know there is a whole world out there.

It is really interesting to see how these four characters develop over the course of the novel, whether it is the culmination of plans coming to fruition or forces pulling you into actions you can only foresee as ending badly, characters eyes are opened and destinies are revealed. Those Above is neatly written and when some of the characters see the same events from different perspectives it allows us to see these events in broader terms and how it impacts on each character. With The Others always being written as enigmatic and yet also seen as beyond beautiful to become repulsive, it would be interesting to know the true history of how The Roost began, and why humans are treated as slaves there, is it truly that humans are seen as no more than insects to be used and squashed at The Others pleasure?

Those Above is an intricately woven story that never feels overwrought but brings us deeper into a rich world with a myriad of characters that feel like individuals rather than background filler. This allows us to focus on the motivations of the four characters as their chapters entwine and gain insight into the world they live in which is full of wonders and misery. There is so much detail packed into this first novel and I can not wait to find out what happens in book two.

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