Joshua Palmatier The Skewed Throne (DAW books, New York 2005)
-- The Cracked Throne (DAW books, New York 2006)
-- The Vacant Throne (DAW books, New York 2006)
Varis is a girl from the Dredge, the slum underbelly of the city of Amenkor, where she survives hand to mouth, getting by on her wits and her strange ability to see something of the nature of others. When the guardsman Erick offer her food in return for her help in tracking down a criminal, she finds herself on the first stage of a journey into violence, chaos, political turmoil and war. The city is ruled by the Mistress, the sole person who can use the strange powers of the magical Skewed Throne, but the current the Mistress, is behaving more and more strangely and Varis is at the core of the plot to solve this.
I loved these books, I really did. The plots spread out from book to book like concentric ripples about a single thrown stone, each containing and refracting, each sustaining and birthing the next, everything harmonious and very believable. Told in the first person, they present a very convincing narrative of maturity, too. I frequently have, I will admit, reservations about first-person female narratives written by men. But Varis's voice is assured and credible: she feels female, she acts female, her sexuality and instincts, her fears and reactions never once caught me in my tracks and broke the flow. She reminds me of the young Jane Eyre, or a sorcery-punked Jo March, tough and terrified, strong and flawed, intelligent and compromised. The first book is told partially in flashback, so that we know from page one that Varis' journey will take her into the Palace and the presence of the mistress, and the tension ratchets not solely from the tale of her growth but the more immediate account of her making her way to the room containing the throne. The city of Amenkor is a splendid creation, reminiscent of Leiber's Lankhmar, or Mieville's New Crobuzon, becoming a character in its own right and infusing the writing with its own particular flavour. And the writing is lovely, smooth and clear and working on all five senses.
The first book is the most self-contained and the most concerned with Varis' personal journey. In the second two, the focus moves outwards, and we see how the visions of the Mistress which so baffled the council in book one are the foreshadowing of a greater threat. A new people are invading, driven from their own lands by a volcanic cataclysm, and Amenkor and Varis must find a way to defend and survive. And while the invasion is threatening, factions within Amenkor seek to serve their own ends regardless of the cost. I must admit that when I first encountered the invaders -- the blue-skinned Chorl -- I hesitated. They have a culture a little like that of the Inca and their skin-tone worried me. However, Palmatier is at pains to present them as a rounded people, with valid beliefs and very real needs, whose motivations are far less questionable than those of some of the factions in Amenkor. Chorl society is presented as complex and conflicted and their requirement for a homeland is very real and treated with respect. Varis concludes that they must be respected and that a modus vivendi must be sought. This is not a question of the Evil Invaders: far from it. The real villains are those within Amenkor and its neighbouring city of Venitte who put their own desires ahead of the welfare of the cities and their peoples.
These are terrific, pacey, fascinating books which remind me of Fritz Leiber and David Gemmell. Recommended.