Those Above by Daniel Polansky book review

Our verdict on the first part in the Empty Throne series

It’s hard to know who to cheer for as battle lines are drawn in this fantasy epic. On the one side, supernatural creatures – known as Those Above – have enslaved mankind for 3,000 years, demanding to be worshipped. On the other, the human nation of Aeleria stands defiant. While Aeleria is a democracy, it seems less concerned with freedom and equality than it does with wealth and power; ‘liberating’ smaller human nations from the shackles of Those Above, only to incorporate them into its own expanding empire.

Making it harder to pick sides, the march towards war is told from four different perspectives. Domina Eudokia is a Aelerian political kingpin with a grudge against Those Above for killing her husband; Calla is a valet to one of Those Above who accepts the creatures superiority unconditionally; General Bas is a life-long warrior in the Aelerian army and the only man to ever kill an Other; and Thistle is an angry young thug living in the sprawling urban wasteland beneath the Those Above mountaintop home.

Those Above is the first in a new series from the critically acclaimed Daniel Polansky, who set imaginations on fire with his last trilogy. Fans of the Low Town series – which mixed urban fantasy with crime noir – will immediately recognise the mix of sex, violence, political unrest, criminal fraternities and the supernatural, however, whereas Low Town was a rip-roaring, genre-splicing mystery, Those Above is a stilted and slow saga. The epic scope Polansky adopts for his new series aims for grandiose storytelling, but feels rather bloated, and the author seems to struggle under the weight of it.

Don’t get us wrong: we can appreciate a slow-burning narrative, developing characters and building the tension, before a grand denouncement, but Those Above does none of these things, seemingly being more concerned with stage-setting for future instalments. After introducing characters, Polansky seems at a loss what to do in the here and now, with more than one character getting drunk and starting a fight just to pass the time. Only Thistle experiences anything close to character development. The sense of peril Polansky tries to interject into the story when Eudokia’s political scheming goes sideways rings hollow, both because it wraps up too quickly and because Polansky has already made it clear war is definitely coming.

The saving grace of Those Above is that for all its epic scale, Polansky doesn’t take it too seriously, with the jet-black sense of snark that made Low Town so fun present throughout. The author saves the best lines for his grand matron Eudokia, but the author’s trademark witticisms litter every page to the point where we wondered if the real joke was on us. With its cardboard-cutout characters and satirical streak, could Polansky be pulling our leg with this epic fantasy parody? After all, the new series name – The Empty Throne – even sounds like a side-swipe at George RR Martin. Perhaps, but we doubt it.