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New Releases: Those Above by Daniel Polansky

Those AboveDaniel Polansky's Low Town trilogy was a bit of a fantasy oddity - a first person, noir-inflected fantasy that didn't seem to give much of a shit about being a fantasy. It wasn't as much aggressively avoiding the classic tropes as much as forging its own, nonchalant path around them. Certainly the books had a touch of magic, a big ol' war, some secret societies and cunning rogues, and all that - but the focus was much tighter: about one man and his maturing sense of responsibility (for himself, his 'community' and his own actions). 

Which is why Those Above (2015) initially seems a complete departure. Rather than the intimacy of the first person narrative and the (relative) restraint of a single city, Those Above is a more traditional epic narrative: a handful of third person points of view, spread across an entire continent. The stakes are higher as well - rather than 'one man's soul' (a rather melodramatic phrasing), Those Above is a clash of civilisations, of cultures and of visions. If that seems perplexing, bear with me...

In Those Above, a ruling caste of near immortals - Tolkien Elves crossed with D&D Deva crossed with The Capitol - govern the world from the lofty heights of the Roost. Thousands of years ago, these awesome beings (in the literal sense) conquered humanity. Fast forward over centuries of enlightened dictatorship. Only one generation ago, humanity tried to rebel... and it didn't work out so well. But the humans have had the tiniest taste of freedom, and, however towering they are, humans can still dream bigger.

If that makes Those Above seem one-sided - or clear - it isn't. Although the four point of view characters are all human, each has her or her own complicated set of motivations. Bas is the most successful commander in the Aelerian army, and the only man to have beaten one of them in combat. But he's exhausted by politics, and ready for the end of war. Eudokia is Aeleria's not-so-secret leader, a one-woman-Illuminati who controls her country's Senate and directs its imperial ambitions. Meanwhile, Calla is the human steward to one of the most powerful members of their court. Raised in their shadow, she adores her master, the most empathetic of his kind, and can see how hard he works to maintain the peace. Yet, further from the hub of their city, in the outermost ring of the Roost, Thistle grows up a vicious street predator, fighting only for his survival.

They - the other that rule this world - have impacted all four of these lives, and millions of others. Their influence is simply too much for one perspective; too complex to be easily captured. Polansky uses the four characters to take different approaches into explaining who they are, what they mean and how we, as humans, can start to understand them.

Arguably, if Low Town was about intimacy, Those Above is about scale. The visual and cultural cues of Aleria are reminiscent of ancient Rome (including the gloriously Livia-like Eudokia). There's a vastness on every page - from the horizon-spanning emptiness of the plains to the gleaming towers of the Roost; from the armored immensity of the Aelerian legions to the towering grandeur of their architecture. Even the extravagance of the meals and the decadence of their experimentation: everything in Those Above screams that this is the most important, most significant, most impressive moment in both civilisations. The inevitable conflict between them will be all the more titanic as a result.

Yet, epics, however vast, are still a dime a dozen. Or a dime a doorstop. What makes Those Above a soaring success is how it balances the jaw-dropping significance of the moment with the tiny, relatively mundane, details. If the plot Those Above is a massive juggernaut, plowing inexorably towards a magnificent war, the individual players are still distracted by their own dramas: day to day jobs, flirtations and schemes. Thistle wants to rise in the ranks of thieves. Eudokia is dealing with blackmailers. Bas's lieutenant is a drunk. Calla is annoyed by an incompetent chef. The reader may understand that this is the most significant time in all of this world's history, but the key players do not. They're distracted by their lives, by their limited vision. They're only human.

And this difference in perspective is carefully woven throughout the book. To them, life only exists on the geological scale - in great events that span centuries, romances that take years to resolve, scientific works that require eons to perfect. They operate on a glacial pace that's mind-bogglingly alien. And yet, humanity is equally perplexing to them - our rapid generations, meaningless connections; our wildly emotional responses fuelled by our short lifespans. Calla's master is unique in his ability to understand how humans think; his empathy is paralleled by Eudokia's talent for strategy at their level. This is us vs them: few can see it coming, and fewer can appreciate how catastrophic the coming war will be.

Also worth mentioning? Beneath all this - Those Above's recurring conflict between mortality and vision - is a cracking good adventure. There's politics and plotting, war and adventure, conquest, invasion, flirtation, assassination, big magic swords, tawdry affairs, murder, blackmail, burglary, mountaintop duels and (why not?) an airship. As brilliantly as Those Above delivers its big, thematic vision, it is also gloriously entertaining - as any great epic fantasy should be.

Those Above is I, Claudius - by way of Tolkien and filtered through Chandler. That is to say, really damn good.