The Skewed Throne: Gritty low fantasy debut

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review joshua palmatierThe Skewed Throne by Joshua Palmatier

Varis is “gutterscum,” a girl — as much animal as girl — who survives as a sneak-thief in the horrid slum of Amenkor known as “The Dredge.” But even in the slum, rumors are spreading about The Mistress, who governs the city from the mystical Skewed Throne — rumors of insanity after a tidal wave of mysterious white fire sweeps through the land. After Varis stabs a criminal in self-defense, she comes to the attention of one of the Mistress’s guardsmen-assassins and begins to help him in tracking his “marks.” But in such a harsh, unstable environment, change comes quickly, and Varis soon finds herself outside of the Dredge. There, she finds that her skill with a dagger — as well as two strange magical talents — may draw her into a new life entirely.

The first novel by Joshua Palmatier, The Skewed Throne is an undemanding, gritty, visceral tale of low fantasy. The tale is told entirely from Varis’s perspective — alternating between episodes in “real time,” in which she is inside Amenkor’s palace, and the preceding years — which produces mixed results. On the one hand, Varis’s account of the startling, vivid details of life in the Dredge is often poignant and includes a few passages of emotional depth rare in fantasy fiction. On the other, by forcing all of the information necessary for the reader through the mind of an illiterate, socially isolated girl, the author limits the reader’s experience of Amenkor and the ultimate situation in which Varis finds herself. (In other words, small details are often powerful — as when Varis is given good food, as opposed to her usual, meager diet — but large ones are ultimately lacking. For example, why should the reader care whether the Mistress goes insane and causes the city to collapse? Is a city and government so blind or inept as to allow the Dredge to exist worth saving from collapse?) “In which Varis finds herself” are also telling words with regard to the book’s climax… which requires an element of passivity on her part and is essentially a set-up for the sequel.  With the hardcover edition totaling only 338 pages, this novel, one might think, could have easily been left as Part One of a greater whole. As is, while I enjoyed most of Varis’s rise from the Dredge — with caveats for unoriginal profanity, throat-slashings galore, and constant repetition of the words gray, river, blood, knife/dagger/blade, and fire — I was disappointed by the climax (and, in retrospect, its inevitability).

Overall, The Skewed Throne is a more complex book to review than read; and even as (or perhaps because I am) someone partial to female thieves, I can only give it a qualified recommendation to fans of dark low fantasy untroubled by the story’s continuation beyond the book. Three gray stars.

The Throne of Amenkor — (2006-2008) Publisher: Amenkor, city of legend, a trading port through which the riches of many lands passed. At its height, Amenkor had been a center of wealth and culture, a place where those of many different backgrounds coexisted in peace and prosperity. Then, a millennium ago, Amenkor was caught in the White Fire, a mysterious force that swept across the land spreading madness, drought, famine, and disease in its wake. With the passing of that first Fire, the ruling Mistress of the era had been found dead on the steps leading up to the palace. And since that time the city had begun a slow, inexorable downward spiral. Now the Dredge — the bustling market street that snaked between the slums and the prosperous center of the city — marked the dividing line between plenty and poverty; between safety and peril; between those who could walk their streets without fear and those who dwelled in the shadows preying upon the helpless and unwary even as they were preyed upon themselves. Varis had learned the art of survival as a very young child, when an unexpected act of violence tore her away from her mother’s loving protection. Then, when the White Fire blasted through Amenkor for the second time, Varis — along with the entire city — had been trapped in this unstoppable blaze of power. And for this child of the streets and alleys, for Amenkor itself, everything changed. Though the current Mistress had continued to reign from the Skewed Throne, Amenkor’s decline seemed to escalate as the Dredge and the slums claimed more and more of the city and its population. And once beyond the Dredge, few ever escaped back to more civilized sections. But for Varis the chance unexpectedly 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, first as a spy and tracker, and later as a trained assassin herself, meting out the Mistress’s justice to the worst criminals plaguing the city. Yet gradually, because she had a gift for “Seeing” the true nature of people, Varis began to realize that something was wrong, that some of those marked for elimination were not guilty, not dangerous to others around them. But how could the Mistress be mistaken? Trust in the all-knowing, all-seeing justice and wisdom of their ruler was the very foundation of Amenkor’s society. And then one fateful day, Varis claimed a life that took her beyond the law, and 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. There, in the center of the city, where the wealthiest citizens dwelled, Varis would face her harshest challenges and greatest opportunities. For whether she knew it or not, she had not escaped the White Fire unscathed. It had marked her for its own, and in the high city, she would either find her destiny or meet her doom…

Joshua Palmatier The Throne of Amenkor (Wrath Suvane): 1. The Skewed Throne 2. The Cracked Throne 3. The Vacant ThroneJoshua Palmatier The Throne of Amenkor (Wrath Suvane): 1. The Skewed Throne 2. The Cracked Throne 3. The Vacant ThroneJoshua Palmatier The Throne of Amenkor (Wrath Suvane): 1. The Skewed Throne 2. The Cracked Throne 3. The Vacant Throne


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ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob's blog.

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