Superhuman, beautiful and near immortal beings – the Others or Those Above – conquered mankind three thousand years ago. Humanity now lives dispersed among several kingdoms or republics, a brittle peace maintained between them thanks to the scrutiny of these four-fingered, vain and pampered Others. Many humans, though, live within the Roost, an enormous mountain of life divided into a pyramid of five rungs. Within the Fifth Rung, the Barrow, live the poorest of the poor among sweatshops, slums, bars and prostitutes, all controlled by gangs, where a dreary short life is lived to the slurping sound of the pipes and pumps that shift the water from the neighbouring sea and lakes into the canals that flow upwards to the higher reaches of the Roost. At the top, within the First Rung, are the beautiful castles, gardens, aviaries and canals of the Others. There they live a glorious life, perched high above the rest of the world, as if they were the most gorgeous of birds. Around them live their human slaves, many of whom can no longer see beyond the paradise that surrounds them. And yet to the Others, humans are less than nothing. They are insects and their lives are insignificant, their deaths even more so.
It is time to stir it up. It is thirty years since the last great battle between humans and the Others. At that time a human soldier, Bas, fought and killed with his own hands one of Those Above, an extraordinary feat, still remembered. At the same battle, the husband of Eudokia, now the chief priestess and venerated mother of the nation of Aelerians, lost his life. The years since have been long but now Eudokia is in a position powerful enough to seek vengeance. Nobody else has the power or ability to tempt down Those Above from their perch. Bas, her General, might be just the man to help. Meanwhile, in the First Rung, high above this human plotting, Calla lives a privileged if subservient life as Seneschal to the Aubade, the Lord of the Red Keep. Through Calla, the mysteries and foibles of Those Above are revealed, at least a little. In the Fifth Rung, there is Thistle, a young boy making a name for himself in the only way possible in the Barrow – spying, thieving, even killing for one of the gang leaders. But even down here in the depths of society, something is stirring. A movement is spreading, the movement of the five fingered against the four, and someone like Thistle is more than ready to listen.
Those Above is an extraordinary novel. It opens a new epic fantasy series in spectacular fashion, gripping the reader from the very beginning through its brilliant worldbuilding, setting the stage for what is to come in the most satisfying and yet tantalising manner. These four individuals are our guides to this strange and yet oddly familiar world – Thistle, Calla, Bas and Eudokia. Each of these four has a unique voice, their experiences are enormously different but each is full. The novel divides itself equally between the four, moving from one to another after almost every chapter. It’s difficult to choose a favourite but I think I was most intrigued by Eudokia and Calla. Eudokia’s plotting is first-rate while Calla provides a viewpoint into the world of the Aubade and I was captivated by it. All of the narratives introduce a whole range of characters and while this is slightly overwhelming at the beginning it soon becomes one of the novel’s richest rewards.
The novel itself is beautifully written. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the paradise world at the top of the Roost, but I also liked the clever use of bird imagery that runs through the novel. The book is punchy in pace, the dialogue is excellent (especially Eudokia’s) and the characters are fabulously varied. I’m not a big reader of epic fantasy but there was something about the idea of this book that appealed from the first time I heard of it – it feels like a future Earth, ruled over by alien beings in a society that seems ancient in origins. The birdlike imagery is matched by the classical and medieval ideas – the armour, costumes, the rulers and their slaves, the court politics, the almost Roman or medieval squalour of the Barrow, the duels and the full-blown battles. It all seems fantastic but also strangely real and appealing.
Throughout Those Above I wanted to know more about this world, its past and what is to come. It’s an opening novel in a series and so there is a lot of preparation and worldbuilding but, perhaps because of the novel’s fluid movement across all areas of the world, it is done in a wonderfully effective way, providing more and more – both beautiful and ugly – to marvel at. Those Above succeeds enormously in its aim to get the reader hooked on the series. It is a fabulously realised and satisfactory novel in its own right but its climax points us like an arrow to the second novel and I cannot wait to read it.