Y'know... I liked this book more than I think I should. Nothing about it is particularly well-executed:
Eh. It's a resurgent Roman Empire with a thinly-veiled Persia and Hunnic/Mongol hordes on the borders, plus the one "out there" element in the form of The Others. More on them in a second.
- Military hero who speaks in grunts and fists and hates the capitol, hates politics, hates politicians most of all? Check.
- Poor kid from the slums who burns at the raw injustice of the society he lives in? Check.
- Brilliant, devious female mastermind who'd be god-emperor were it not for her unfortunate sex, but is determined to rule all anyways? Check.
- Beautiful woman of wealth and high-rank who doesn't realize she's actually a slave? You bet your ass, checkity check.
- The alien/fantasy character who is the only one amongst his people who realizes the true potential of the humans his race detests? Yeah, he's there, too.
And so on.
There ain't much of one! The books feels 90% like setup for the sequel that followed, "Those Below", which I'll be getting to at some point this year.
The book goes into extravagant detail on the lives of the main characters, and what little action there is serves mostly just to more firmly place these characters into their roles/stereotypes. The Military Guy finds himself surprisingly respectful of an enemy! The High-Ranking Slave is shocked to discover her masters may actually be bad! The Poor Kid from the slums goes through a transformation that lets him channel his anger into purpose!
We've all read all of these stories before.
The fantastical element, such as there is, is the aforementioned Others. They conquered humanity 3000 years ago. A tremendous part of the world's treasure goes to The Roost, their capital, where they all live, that sits on the eastern edge of the human world and is populated mostly by human slaves. They made the ancestors of said slaves hollow out a mountain to build the waterworks and canals that feed their greed pile on the top of it all.
Even this element is not executed particularly well. The Others, their background left utterly unexplained, are basically "humans, but a bit bigger, stronger, and lacking all social graces. Oh, and, uh, they're short a finger compared to us. And they live basically forever".
I found them to be simply not foreign/fantastical enough. They're easy to hate, because by law they cannot be challenged if they hurt/kill any human, even their most loyal servants. And it's obvious that the wretched of The Roost would... well, scratch that. The poor of the human empires that aren't The Roost are just as poor and wretched as poor people are IN The Roost. So it's not like The Others can even be blamed for that. They're basically an almost-immortal, incredibly inbred human imperial clan sitting atop society, and all of Polansky's attempts to make them truly fantastical and alien can't change the reader's interpretation of them as basically shitty, rich, pretty humans.
If anything really read WRONG to me in the book, it was that the others, who are very humanoid in their general presence, can't even tell humans much apart and have an easier time comprehending rats and bugs. That... just doesn't seem possible based on the limited (if important) differences between your modal Other and Human. But... they're drawn well-enough for me to buy their purpose in the plot.
I still... kinda liked the book. Quite a bit. I can almost see exactly how the second and last book will play out (I've even sketched a list of what I think will happen so I can see how close I got once I read it), and I'm looking forward to reading it.
Most of this is due, I think, to Polansky's abilities at drawing a scene. I can visualize the various locales he describes (in close to but not-quite exhaustive detail, usually) quite well, and situate the characters in those places. And, while this book is almost entirely "As you know, Bob...", he's got things placed for a bang-up conclusion.
Anybody who doesn't like a tremendous amount of detail about architecture, weapons, food, etc., is not going to like this book. The reader needn't leave much to their imagination here. If you also require lots of fast-moving action through the plot, with twists and reveals... also not a thing here.
I guess I like it because, for all of the fantasy elements, it also reads as plausible, which is something a lot of recent fantasy and sci-fi books I've tackled have failed at. There's no anachronistic, wise-cracking teenager who reminds me of my actual 2021 nephew in this essentially medieval world. The characters act as people in their situations most likely would.
Basically, coming up on a year of being effectively quarantined myself, I enjoyed immersing myself into a richly detailed, entirely different world, even if not TOO much happens there in this book. Plenty enough is happening HERE, and I found myself fine just hanging out in the world of Those Above. And I suspect I'll enjoy what HAS to be a serious uptick in actual action in the concluding volume.
I know. Not really a recommendation, to say that, by the checklist of details, it doesn't seem to add up, but as a total work, I dug it. Make of that what you will.