Time to start off another post with my near constant disclaimer of “I’ve let this one sit around too long.” Between having a kiddo, getting off the night shift and spending more time with my own writing, I’m not cranking though books at a rate of two or three a week anymore. My to-read pile has probably averaged a dozen for the last year and gone up as high as twenty. Between new books, used books and the stuff on my new nook, I think there’s eighteen in the pile right now and that doesn’t count the to-buy list either. Today’s book isn’t brandy new like a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading lately, but it was recommended to me by the author.
I think it was after reading Leaves of Flame that Ben Tate suggested I check out his earlier trilogy starting with The Skewed Throne published under his actual name, Joshua Palmatier. Throne is his first novel, as opposed to the fourth and fifth that I’ve enjoyed so much already. It’s the same world but different area and era.
I’ve always thought (and said a few times), that a lot of the reason for me to do these reviews is to help process my own thoughts and ideas about why I like what I do so I can more consciously filter those themes, lessons, topics and whathaveyou into my own work. I’ve also gotten a lot of enjoyment about telling others about great books and I’m sure that’s gonna be awesome for the karma bank, but writerly growth is what fueled these. So I walked into Throne aware that seven years and five novels can create a lot of growth. My fan eyes and critical eyes both got a work out.
I’ve rambled enough! Back of the book time!
Amenkor, City of Legend – At its height, Amenkor was a center of weath and culture. But a millennium ago, the city was caught in the White Fire, a force that swept across the land spreading madness, drought, famine and disease in its wake.
Now the Dredge – the bustling market street that snakes between the slums and the prosperous center of the city – marked the dividing line between plenty and poverty, safety and peril.
Left a homeless orphan as a very young child, Varis learned to survive in the Dredge. And when the White Fire blasted through Amenkor for the second time, Varis – along with the entire city – was trapped in the overwhelming blaze of power.
Though the current Mistress continued to reign from the Skewed Throne, Amenkor’s decline escalated after the second Fire. For Varis, though, the chance to escape her homeless existence unexpected presented itself when a guardsman of the Skewed Throne named Erick – one of the elite assassins known as Seekers – enlisted her to work for him.
Because she had a gift for “Seeing” the true nature of people, Varis soon realized something was wrong, that some of those marked for death were not guilty. But how could the Mistress be mistake? Trust in the all knowing, all seeing justice and wisdom of their ruler was the foundation of Amenkor’s society. Then one fateful day, Varis claimed a life that took her beyond the law. Suddenly there was nowhere safe for her in the Dredge. There was only one place left to flee to – into the heart of Amenkor itself…
Let’s start with the things from the back of the book. Always a great place to start and the more I write book posts, the more I think it must be a really be a hard job to write those back of the book pieces. No sarcasm there. Seriously. This one’s not Magebane misleading, but there’s a lot of… misdirection here. Aside from mostly talking about the setting rather than plot, the back cover sounds like it’s just telling us the set up. The first couple chapters only before propelling us into the rest of the book with the dot dot dot at the end. Forty percent of the book comes before the dot dot dot and we’re not given a clue what Varis is up to once she hits up the city proper. This isn’t like when I get mad at the people working at Subway for making me a crappy grinder when I could do it better myself. There’s a reason I type out the back of the book and stopped trying to sum it up myself. It’s hard to know how much to spell out and how much to keep to the pages. I just think this is an instance where the back cover is underselling the book. There’s a lot more going on than we’re hinted at.
And it’s centered around Varis. Good thing too since she’s the only protag and it’s a first person narrative. Above all else, Varis is what makes this book so enjoyable. The life of a street urchin, gutterscum in the local Dredge parlance, is a very specific point of view. Varis has only the haziest of memories of any family or proper home. The only education she got was from a street gang of thieves. She knows next to nothing of the world outside the slums. Until Erick comes along, Varis’ world is nothing but a very specialized set of survival skills. When given the opportunity to do something more than just survive, she becomes disgusted with herself in a way for just getting by on the bare minimum.
Palmatier seriously gets into Varis’ head as she thinks all this out step by step and her experiences mold her into the person she is by the end of the book. The extent he gets in her head shows up in the coolest little details. What would a street urchin one step above feral need with a civilized existence? Nothing that’s what. Seeing some of these things through her eyes is fascinating. I’m not going to ruin it, but there’s a passage with a fork that I enjoyed the hell out of. It’s a line and a half but one of those awesome little details like the scrambled eggs thing in Leaves of Flame that really give a novel character to me.
So onto the details. World building to be specific. There’s a lot of it in Well of Sorrows and Leaves so it was something I was looking for here in Throne. There’s plenty of it here too, but I felt it operated in the background a lot more this time. At first I felt a touch disappointed in that. Especially when it comes to fantasy books, I like it when I come away from a book feeling like it could double as a Dungeons and Dragons campaign sourcebook. Looking at it now thought, I think I was unfair to compare the two trilogies that way. It’s an apples to oranges kind of deal. Both books deal with some of the same political intrigue and thriller tropes mixed in with the traditional fantasy tropes, Well more so than Throne. Varis’ story is personal though, filtered through one set of eyes that are only seventeenish. Colin Harten in Well has lived for decades in a world sprawling story. Less sprawl and more focus leaves a lot of that world building minutiae out. I can feel its effects in Throne, I just can’t see it because Varis can’t see it.
It does leave some questions unanswered, like why is it called The Skewed Throne and some more info about the Mistress would be awesome. Those seem firmly set up as Book Two problems. I’m ok with that, but in a more sprawling story, we’d probably find those answers sooner. How soon would you like your answers is a personal preference issue, not a quality of work issue. Especially when I know the next book is already written, I’m perfectly ok with delaying some answers until later.
So I’ve rambled on extensively about Throne already. The better I get at the book posts, the longer they seem to get. Bringing it full circle, where did I spot the growth in Palmatier’s writing between Throne and Leaves? I think I spotted a lot in the secondary characters. Here in Throne, they were likable when they needed to be and dastardly when required. Don’t over read that and think they were flat. Because everything is filtered through Varis’ eyes, the amount of life required in them would vary according to how our protag deals with them. A third person narrative would have a whole different set of requirements for supporting cast. But this is a comparison between two different trilogies and with Well, I could easily see whole additional novels coming out of the side characters. Here in Throne, I can with Erick, but necessities of plot shuffle him off stage for a good chunk of the book.
Structurally, there are flash forward chapters. The main plot and the flash forward bits converge around the 90% ish mark for the climax. I’m neutral about the flash forward structure in itself, but I think the balance was slightly off. There were stretches without the flash forward bits that made me wonder if they were coming back or if we were done with it. While it was something I thought about during the read, it never killed the readablity of the book for me. There was a little bit near the end that was confusing as hell at first, but it eventually made sense and couldn’t have been written any other way.
Sidenote, the German edition won a way cooler cover but I always like a book where the cover is actually a scene from the book. The regular cover actually happens in the narrative.
Ok I’ve got to wrap this up because this is getting wicked long. Did I like this book? Absolutely. Will I recommend it to other people? Damn straight. Varis is awesome. Taking the traditionally “bad guy” role of assassin and making it the protag’s job makes for fascinating reading. Palmatier’s writing has progressed for the positive in the years since but The Skewed Throne made for a solid debut and is absolutely no slouch. I highly recommend this.