Thursday, March 24, 2016

Those Above - Daniel Polansky

Those Above is the start of a new fantasy series by Daniel Polansky, who has made waves with his Low Town series – and more recently his The Builders novella.

In a world ruled by Those Above, a four-fingered species nominally superior to base humanity in every way, humanity suffers under the velvet glove of oppression. We see the world through four sets of eyes, two largely without the influence of Those Above, and two with it’s ambit, to varying degrees. Those on the outside are a general on the front of a far flung war, with swords, blood and atrocity near constant companions, and a scheming aristocrat at the heart of that general’s republic, looking to turn the political agenda to her own ends. Within the city of Those Above, we have a young street rat, with a penchant for violence and a flame of potential, and a Seneshal for one of the mysterious Above, within the very core of their power, but still not one of them.

There’s a lot of worldbuilding that goes on here; Polansky manages to put the broad strokes out efficiently and within a wrapper of tight, elegant prose. There’s the classically-inspired Republic, sitting at the edges of the influence of Those Above. Trekking through its capital, the mood evoked is that of the heyday of Rome. Senators sit within marble halls, debating the necessity of war, whilst passing bribes from hand to hand. Servants live in the houses of their betters, bodyguards, cooks, maids, all circling the whims of an aristocratic potentate. It’s a city, and a society, seething with inequality, but portrayed with an unmatched vitality. The contrast of the city with the outer borders of the republic is wonderfully done – moving from the claustrophobic alleyways  and  raucous markets to the deadly silence of the Marches, broken only by the cacophonous charge of horse, or the ring of steel. As a society it feels plausible, and sits within the wider fabric of the world that the author is creating.

Alongside this world, however, strange but familiar, sits The Roost, home of Those Above. Divided into social caste by ‘rungs’, their city bored into and above a mountaintop is a study in soaring paradise, and in the depths of despair. One of our viewpoints sits at the top of the system, well fed, acting with a degree of skill, doing a task that they believe matters, certain of the security and necessity of the structure they live within. This gives us eyes on Those Above, their duels, their occasional penchant for bloodshed, intrigue with machinery, and broad disdain for humanity, always eclipsed for a people with enormous lifespans tied to equally spectacular strength and agility.  Polansky shows us a people not quite in stasis, but sustained by their own arrogance, so sure of themselves that discovering a flaw in their superiority could crack their society wide open.

And then there’s the bottom rung, a world in miniature, of tenement slums and cheap wine. Our voice there begins as nothing much, an idler, given an opportunity to rise. But he lets us in on the broken hopelessness of people living in eternal servitude, the dispossessed,  the helpless, and the desperate, tied up with the beasts and horrors that kind fo desperation creates. It’s a stark contrast to the other end of The Roost, and it’s to Polansky’s credit that both seem entirely real – though the lowest rung, of broken souls and furious body, carries the edge in  exuding raw emotion.

The characters – well, as I said above, we move between four viewpoints, one in each geography – though they do occasionally manage to intersect, however briefly.  Watching the aristocrat at the centre of a web of politics in the Republic is an absolute pleasure. There’s a Machiavellian ruthlessness on display which carries a certain charm. She’s highly intelligent, goals-oriented, driven – and with a mind like a steel trap. Every turn of the page is a revelation or at the very least, deserving of a wry chuckle.  Polansky manages to give us a terrifying and intriguing view into this personality, and adds a lovely soupcon of humanity as well.

By contrast, Bas, the general, seems purposely emotionless. He’s a man living inside a reputation, a cold force stalking across the battlefield. He seems separated from the men he commands, a curt, distant figure, emotionally scarred by the last futile struggle against Those Above, but drawn to their minimalist superiority and aesthetic of restrained violence. As a general, he feels like a man sat in a spiralling gyre of control, desperate to maintain it whilst overseeing its dissolution.  Bas has his revelatory moments in the text, but they feel subtle, undercurrents in a life borne on the back of the physical. Still, I look forward to spending more time in his company.

Then there’s our warren rat. Here the feelings of crushed despair, of having nowhere to go and nothing to do, are captured perfectly. Polansky shows us a purposeless life, and then throws out a lifeline of purpose. We can watch our man drag himself along it, into an order of gangs and dissidents, and feel a little of his own slowly burgeoning sense of self-worth. That self-worth never undercuts the validity of his hatreds, of the brutality of his actions, and the complex node of emotions, the living lust and hate and love that informs his relationship with Those Above, more a social than a personal force. This is a study of a man climbing a hierarchy, discovering himself and trying to define himself, whilst raging against the constraints of an external force. It’s tautly, viciously, wonderfully written.

The seneschal, by contrast, lives in a quieter world, one of elaborate dinners and inappropriate lovers. I was reminded of an Austen heroine, caught up in her own importance, but self-aware enough to be deprecating about it. As a window into Those Above, she’s priceless – but I wanted to see more of the character, rather than let her be defined by those around here. There’s a little of this at the end, as she starts trying to decide what she wants, who she is – but it felt like there was more, under the surface – hopefully we’ll see it in following books.

The plot – well, as it skips between viewpoints, the overarching theme seems to be societies in conflict. The Republic subdues its neighbours, with a watchful eye cast toward Those Above. They watch the Republic, determining whether they have to intervene in the squabbles of their lesser – or whether it would be simpler to go back to the party. And then there’s the struggle of class, the lower rung of the Roost struggling under the negligent hands of Those Above, the upper collaborating in the process. There’s a sense of a world rolling inevitably toward something larger, a difference somewhere between social  change and all-out war. Between the politics, the warfare, the street-level bare-knuckle, back-alley-shiv brawls and the ringing tones of Those Above – I couldn’t stop reading.

Is it worth trying out? Very much so. It has an intriguing world, which has now been well established, and some complex characters, filled with humanity – or, in some cases, with a chilling otherness which was terrifyingly effective. The story gripped me and never let go – and left me wanting more. So, thoroughly recommended.

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