There are so many things to love about Tolkien’s mythos, but my favourite part has been, for a long time, the Elves. As I outlined in this post on Lee Pace’s depiction of Thranduil, these are a people who are markedly similar to humans in some ways (physically, culturally), so much so that we tend to forget they are not human. This may be, in some ways, Tolkien’s fault. His Elves are by and large ‘good’ to humans, having little of the chanciness and amorality that form defining features of the Fair Folk in myths and fairy tales. Even so, despite validating them as amazing beings, there are slips in Tolkien’s narrative, where he makes clear that Elves and Men do not always get along, and that the dawning of Men means the end of the other race, that their time on Middle Earth is done. He does not test whether, given Man’s inevitable industrial development, relations between the two would remain on good terms, even in the extremely idealized kingdom of Gondor.
In some ways, Daniel Polansky’s duology, Those Above and Those Below is a what-if that could be set in Middle Earth. What if, instead of gracefully exiting, stage west, the Eldar had continued to dwell in the same lands as the humans? What if there had been no Dark Lord, or Orcs to fight, and hence no need for the two races to have united fronts in the first place? Would Nature have taken its course, with the more advanced of the two, the Elves, holding dominion over the many? It’s entirely possible, and that is almost precisely the premise of Polansky’s narrative.
The Others, the Eternal, the Birds—call them what you will, these strange, extremely-long-lived, graceful, almost unbearably beautiful beings have decimated the human armies that have dared to oppose them. They dwell at the top of a mountain, in the Roost, with the five lower rungs populated by the humans who serve them. Outside their lands lie the human realms, empires that rise and fall, always held at bay by terror of the Eternal. Until now.
I won’t lie, Those Above takes its time to unfold. The story moves through four different viewpoints: Bas, a military commander of the Aelerian army, Eudokia, widow of a prominent political family, and spinner of schemes, Calla, a high ranking servant to one of the Eternal, and Thistle, a teenaged malcontent who scrounges for respect, and a living, on the Fifth Rung, the most poverty-stricken area of the Roost. With four such seemingly disparate storylines, it takes a while for things to cohere, for some sort of grand picture to form in the mind of the reader. The Aelerian sections specifically, those that belong to Eudokia, seem most disconnected from the rest, related as they are to the politicking and manoeuvring of an empire that seems as far from the Roost and its inhabitants as anything can possibly be. It’s only about three quarters of the way through that the narratives seem to come together, and the threads of Polansky’s plot glimmer into view.
But when they do come together, the effect is so worth it. If Lord of the Rings is the premise, the execution is all Martin, with heavy shades of Westeros overlying the interactions. Though we’re in these characters’ heads, and hence privy to a lot of their thoughts and emotions, Polansky still manages to pull the rug out from under your feet, and let them surprise you. This is quite an achievement, given that the characters themselves seem almost instantly recognizable types: the bluff, but essentially good, military man, the scheming widow, the pretty, devoted servant, and the angry young man. And yet, the way they play against each other, and the events that they are spiraled into, make the reading worthwhile.
Though finally, it’s the Eternal who hold it all together, who with their remoteness and unknowability, keep the reader hooked. Despite having two books that are all about the struggles against them, and the various forms those struggles take, the Eternal remain a mystery to everyone, the humans in their world, and the readers too. And yet, they keep drawing you back, and just when you think you’ve gotten a hang of how they think, or why they do what they do, they turn around and show you that hang on, they’re not comprehensible after all. They’re not good, or evil. They are a people, and their motivations and rationale are far, far beyond our comprehension.
Those Above and its sequel are brutal books, reflecting the world they move through. There is no idyll here, no Gondor with saintly kings, or Loriens with wise Queens. There is beauty, but it cannot blot out misery and corruption. In that way, the books are depressingly realistic, you might say, but hell, a lot of the best fantasy these days lies in that territory. Realistic by human standards, that is. What the Eternal would make of it, nobody knows, probably not even Polansky himself.