Those Above kinda floored me, but not for the reasons you might expect.
I really didn’t get along with Daniel Polansky’s last series, the Low Town trilogy. I respected where he was going with it and the concept was interesting but ultimately it just wasn’t for me. It was grim, dark and cynical but all a bit introverted, focussing on a character that I just couldn’t connect with.
Well Those Above is the same. But also…different.
It is grim, dark and cynical with that same biting sense of humour and florid, dense prose style I remembered from Low Town. But now Polansky has completely expanded his focus into a more epic story, with some wildly inventive worldbuilding and tremendous main characters. The narrative style moves to third-person, utilising the much-copied Martin-esque technique of having each chapter dedicated to one exclusive point-of-view at a time. It works well for a reason and Polansky really pulls it off, starting off with four very separate storylines that all begin to overlap and converge as the book goes on. It’s very clever storytelling indeed.
The basic premise is that long ago the world came to be ruled over by dominant, seemingly immortal elf-like creatures known as Those Above, living in an enormous city known as The Roost. They live at the top of the mountain (quite literally) in what is known as the First Rung of the city, an always ominous presence that becomes less prevalent the further from the Roost we travel. Elsewhere the country of Aeleria is in a shaky alliance with The Roost and its countrymen, driven further and further to the brink by the machinations of those at the top of its Romanesque political structure. And all the while the seeds of rebellion are being laid in the Fifth Rung of the Roost where a young boy known as Thistle is pulled inadvertently into the mix with Those Above.
This is very much epic fantasy with battles, politics and rebellion being the order of the day. As for characters there’s four major POVs: Bas, the old battle commander who is infamous for having killed one of Those Above in battle many years previous; Eudokia, the woman who sits at the head of a vast web of political power in Aeleria; Calla, the slave who serves one of Those Above directly and knows no other life; and Thistle, the young boy pulled into everything by no real fault of his own but who has known nothing else in life but theft, survival and violence. There’s also a host of memorable supporting characters – Those Above themselves steal many a scene – but this is very much the story of the aforementioned four.
Each has their moments, with Eudokia in particular dominating much of the book, having a hand in events far and wide as she grips the strings like a puppet master. She’s a strong character, reminiscent of Cersei Lannister if Cersei were twice as ruthless and half as arrogant. Indeed there are echoes of many epic fantasy staples here – with Bas being our typically gruff, take-no-nonsense army veteran who’s probably too old for this shit and Thistle, our hero who’s risen up from the gutters to face evil itself. But it rarely feels overly familiar, with Polansky displaying a deft touch in making each character believable. Each is flawed and as unlikeable at times as they are likeable, with for instance, much of Calla’s reasons for her actions only becoming clear the more we get to know her. It’s an interesting mix that allows for the book to remain intimate while progressing an epic plot that could span books and books.
And there’s my problem: it’s a bit short for such an epic story. That would be admirable if it weren’t for the fact that there is no real feeling of accomplishment – the book builds and builds each storyline to a crescendo that never really comes. Yes, there’s some excellent and exciting scenes in the latter third, but none are what I might come to expect from the ending of an epic fantasy novel. Characters get where we’d expect them to get in the first part of a much larger series, but by all accounts this is a two-parter; something that seems bizarre to me. Polansky has only just begun to set out his tools in Those Above and then it’s cut short, with only one more book to come. Suffice to say I’m curious to see where it goes in the next one as there’s an awful lot of big moments set-up here that need pay-off in the next, and the last thing I want is a rushed finale for the sake of completing the story in two books. Those Above is just too good for the second to fall flat.
And that’s just it: Those Above is excellent epic fantasy. Polansky retains much of his style from Low Town but is able to paint it across a much larger canvas with a wide and varied cast that it’s easy to become attached to. Things are coming to a head by the end and I just hope he can pull it off in part two, because if he can this will be a story to remember and recommend for years to come as an epic fantasy done just right.