(2015) Daniel Polansky, Hodder, £8.99, pbk, 393pp, ISBN 978-1-444-77991-2
In the few months prior to receiving this book to review, there was the death and memorial service of Ronnie Corbett. All the old clips were rolled out – ‘Four candles’, the monologues in the big chair, the Mastermind round (answering the question before last). The one that stood out, and which I just about remember from its original broadcast, was the one featuring Corbett, Ronnie Barker and John Cleese, with Corbett repeatedly stating that ‘I know my place’.
Why the reminiscence? Because the sketch was all about Class, and that was my impression of the underlying theme of this book – maybe even Caste. (I would be interested to know if the author had any experience of India.)
The novel begins and ends on the battlefield, but a battlefield on an already conquered Earth (at least I think it’s Earth – it is difficult to tell at times). Earth is ruled by 'Those Above', aliens in birdlike form, and much of the ‘action’ takes place in a vertical city with the aliens roosting at the top, and the various classes of humans literally descending as they occupy the lower levels.
(One of my usual moans about books are the maps they provide, which have no real bearing on the story. This one could have done with one.)
It is clear from the start that this is but the first part of a series. The opening chapters focus on each of the classes in turn, setting the scene for what follows, but also giving a hint of what may change – so for instance, the chapters relating to the character Calla, one of those who have access to the avian aliens portray her as the holder of secrets, the key one being that she understands their language, but can never let on.
‘They must know that we understand something,’ Calla responded.
‘Who knows what they know? It is not so long ago that the Seneschal of the Iron Mistress was put to death for overhearing his lady.’ (Page 84.)
And then there is Thistle, a boy from the lowest part of the city. The chapters in which he is featured are some of those most obviously drawn from other books. He is an urchin and a thief, always managing to escape at the last moment. And then there comes that moment when you can almost hear the ‘Psssst’, as a stranger steps out of the shadows, a stranger who has been watching him for a long time and who makes him an offer he cannot refuse. Shades of Oliver Twist, The Prince and the Pauper, and any number of other similar stories.
The last quarter of the book is very obviously taken up with setting the scene for the next one in the series, with a number of cliff-hangers being created, especially the one related to Thistle. His story takes him to a room in the basement of a butchers shop in the next level up from his, where he is initiated into the revolution against the aliens, and given a new name, Pyre. And you obviously can’t guess what will happen next, with a name like that. But as it is the last chapter in the book…
For me, this book could never stand alone, it would always need the next in the series, and for that I can’t recommend it. A saga ‘demands’ that you are willing to wait for the next one to move the story on, and this isn’t one for me.
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