Those Below | Daniel Polansky | 2016 (10 March) | 359p | Hodder & Stoughton | Review copy | Buy the book
Those Below is the second and final part of The Empty Throne series that began with Those Above. Those Below isn’t a stand alone novel – you really do need to have read Those Above first and this review assumes that you’ve done so. Spoilers for what went before are inevitable. So suitably warned, on with the review.
I’m not much of a reader of fantasy but there’s something about the world that Daniel Polansky creates in The Empty Throne books that strongly appeals to me. It depicts a planet – Earth? – in which human beings are divided between nations at war with one another. Warfare is fought on horseback, on foot, with swords, cunning and treachery. But there is a higher power in this world. The Others, or Those Above, conquered mankind centuries before and these fabulous immortals rule from the top of the Roost, a mountain of life divided into five rungs. The deeper your rung, the more desperate you are. Here we have a beautifully realised albeit cruel future, one in which mankind has become subservient to golden superbeings, aliens who treat their human servants, at best, no better than pets and at worst with no regard at all. In Those Above we were taken into the Roost, observed the rungs of mankind and ascended to the very peak and the castles and gardens of the lords and ladies who, if not slain by one another, live forever. All the time, unrest fermented on the battlefields below and in the lower rungs.
Those Below continues the stories of some of the figures we got to know so well in Those Above – Calla, the privileged servant of the Aubade lord, Thistle, the boy who scrapes a living in the fifth rung, Bas, the general who once slew an eternal, and Eudokia, a scheming priestess with vengeance on her mind. But things have changed from before. The events of the previous novel have left their mark and now our attention is shifted to the lower rungs of the Roost where Thistle has transformed himself into Pyre, a formidable force for revolution. Mankind is at war on the plains again but when Eudokia enters the Roost as their ambassador to explain the situation to the Others, there’s a strong sense that for once the eternals are to be outwitted.
I thoroughly enjoyed Those Above and many of the things that I loved about that book are present in Those Below. The worldbuilding is fantastic – the Roost is wonderfully visualised and I especially liked the ways in which people – and gods – move between the rungs. I love the bird imagery that fills these novels and I particularly like the sections on the first rung with the descriptions of the magnificent castles and beautiful gardens and the Others themselves. The Aubade lord fascinates me more, it must be said, than any of the human characters, as does his interaction with Calla. It’s like watching a tiger play with a lamb.
But Those Below is dark and very grim. We are taken down into the depths of human society and watching Thistle’s desperate fight is not always easy to read. There is cruelty here, nobody is to be trusted, and seeing it all unfold is painful. There is a sad inevitability. It’s fair to say that I found parts of the book so dark I didn’t look forward to picking it up. Which is a shame because I love the world that Daniel Polansky has created. Although I didn’t enjoy Those Below as much as I’d hoped – the last third in particular is relentlessly bleak and not at all what I hoped for – as a series, The Empty Throne is rich in rewards and I doubt I’ll forget it.