01/10/2008. Contributed by Sue Stewart
pub: DAW Books. 375 page paperback. Price: $ 7.99 (US), $10.99 (CAN), £4.43 (US). ISBN: 0-7564-0382-0).
check out website: www.dawbooks.com and www.sff.net/people/jpalmatier/
Set in the vaguely medieval city of Amenkor, 'The Skewed Throne' is the story of Varis, an orphan who has learned to survive alone in and around the Dredge, the market street that separates the prosperous side of the city from the slums beyond it. In true fantasy tradition, Varis is different from the other inhabitants of the Dredge. She has a special gift that has helped her to survive and that changes her life forever.
It's a simple premise and there's nothing wrong with that. On the face of it it's not so different from the premise of many other fantasy stories and there's nothing wrong with that if it's well handled. And it is. Very well handled. The author's great strength is understanding the effects of emotion and he describes them very skilfully. He's no slouch with the action scenes, neither, though they're not as technical as some I've read. Again, that's not necessarily a bad thing. But the really good thing about this book is how deftly Joshua Palmatier manipulates our expectations.
Thanks to the title, I half expected Varis to be whisked off to a court, with a throne, naturally, where she'd have to fumble her way through loads of plots and intrigues. I even thought the whisking off might be done by a handsome prince, though if it had, I might have lost the will to live or at least to go on reading, but that would have been too obvious. In 'The Skewed Throne', you don't get that or not in the way that you expect. The throne does exist, it's the literal seat of authority in Amenkor, but for most people in the city it's a symbol. They never see it and don't expect to.
We learn about life in Amenkor, but it's life in the gutter of a decaying city, seen through the eyes of a near-feral child. Varis is hungry, wary and untrusting. Understandably. She knows that she will be preyed on, for the scraps that she scavenges and steals to survive because she is a child and is female. It is only because a guardsman of the Skewed Throne enlists her to work for him that she is able to change anything at all.
She is a young teen at the start of the book, but it's made plain that Varis looks like a child and still has a child's understanding, deep fears and fierce hates. Her clever child's way of naming and describing things gives a real sense of otherness as we learn, understand and develop along with her and I was more than happy to do it. Varis is a great creation and her story is no fairytale. Her life only changes because she's useful to someone and the changes aren't necessarily for the better. Varis's 'gift' is a dubious one that exposes her to as many dangers as it saves her from. Her progress is a rough ride but a very interesting one.
I admit that I wanted to like this book because I discovered the author's blog quite a while ago and liked that very much. The only problem with coming to a book this way round is that there's no guarantee that a good blogger makes a good novelist. I certainly wasn't disappointed in this case, though. I thought 'The Skewed Throne' was a great read and I didn't want to put it down. Luckily for me, I don't really have to. I'm off the read the sequel, 'The Cracked Throne', now and after that, there's 'The Vacant Throne'. Hang on, books, I'm on my way.
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