The Skewed Throne by Joshua Palmatier

December 10, 2007 at 5:49 pm (Joshua Palmatier, Reviews)

Joshua Palmatier - The Skewed ThroneThe Skewed Throne is the debut novel from Joshua Palmatier.

Such a boring intro is fitting for this book as that’s about how enthusiastic I was while reading it.

At the start we are treated to a short info dump about a mysterious White Fire that burned through the world a millennia ago, and then again a few years before the outset of the story. What it does is never explained (apparently it just wanders through, without actually burning anything). Nor is where it came from.

The Skewed Throne tells the story of Varis, orphaned at 6 years old, she survives on the Dredge, and in the slums of Amenkor beyond, for 8 years before the opening of the novel. The book spans 3 more years.

It follows dual timelines, the present, which shows Varis’s mission to assassinate the Mistress, and the past (which dominates the book) chronicling her rise to super-assassinhood, and other events that lead up to her present-day mission.

We start in the Dredge, what appears to be the only main thoroughfare in the slums of Amenkor. Varis is a gutter rat, stealing what food she can to survive. Attacked in an ally, she is observed by Erik, a “Seeker,” as she fights off her assailant.

Forgive me for being a little hesitant of reading any book that features a character titled “Seeker.” I can still taste the foul residue of Goodkind clinging to the word. If it hadn’t been for the glowing praise it was represented to me with, I might have abandoned it here.

A Seeker, in this novel, is something of a bounty hunter/assassin. The Mistress dictates who needs to die, and the Seeker sees that it is done. As refugees pile in to the slums of Amenkor, Erik’s work becomes increasingly more difficult. So he uses Varis to locate his marks for him. She sits along the Dredge, finds the men he is looking for, follows them to the hole they live in, and then leads the Seeker to them. Wherein they are killed mercilessly.

Just for kicks, Erik teaches Varis how to fight, though for how serves his use for her, I don’t know.

“Varis soon realized that some of those marked for death were not guilty.” That from the back cover. One time does she notice it, little good it does anybody, and she does little to find an explanation. It’s not even what drove her from the Dredge; that came from a rivalry with another gutter scum named Bloodmark.

After Varis flees to the upper-city of Amenkor, where the rich folk live, and we are treated to some lackluster political maneuvering until the story reaches it’s climax.

Being that this is fantasy, she, naturally, has a special ability: “She had a gift for ‘Seeing’ the true nature of people…” That is also from the synopsis on the back cover. “The true nature of people” is a broad overstatement of a simple ability.

     “I peered out from the darkness of the slums now, huddled low, mud-brick pressed into my back. On the street, men and women moved back and forth. I watched each of them as they arrived, caught their faces, scanned their clothing. That man wore tattered rags but carried a dagger at his belt. Yet there was no danger in his eyes. Hard, but not cruel. He carried nothing else, and so he faded from my mind, nothing but a darker blur against the dull gray of the world. Unconsciously, I kept track of him-of all the people-but he’d ceased to be interesting. Not a target; not a threat. Gray.
     A flash of fine clothing and my eyes shifted. Not truly fine clothing-frayed edging, a tear down one side of the gray shirt, breeches stained, oily-but better than most. He wore boots, one sole loose at the heel, the nails visible when he walked. He also carried a dagger, hidden, his hand resting over the bulge of its sheath at his side. He walked quickie, tense, and his eyes…
     But he turned before I could catch his eyes, his torn shirt and loose sole vanishing through a doorway.
     He faded.
     Gray.
     I settled into position next to the wall, wincing once over the bruise on my chest, and let the flow of the street wash around me. When the pain receded, I focused on the street, squinted in concentration, and felt a familiar sensation deep inside.
     With a subtle, internal movement, like relaxing a muscle, the sensation rushed forward.
     The world collapsed, slowed, blurred. Buildings and people faded, grayed. Those men and women I’d determined to be possible threats slid into washes of red against the background gray, like smears of blood, moving through the flow of the street. Occasionally, I’d concentrate on one person and they’d emerge from the gray, sharp and clear, so I could watch them, consider them. Casual glances would draw others out of the gray, their actions entering the field momentarily, and then I’d lose interest, determine they carried nothing I could eat, nothing I wanted, and the people would return to gray.”
-page 24-25

A lengthier explanation maybe, but it much more clearly states the process of her ability. Varis did not see “the true nature of people,” but was able to detect only whether or not they were a threat. A threat to her specifically. When she dipped into her “Sight,” the good guys (or not so much good guys, but those who were inconsequential) came up gray, and the bad guys red.

Going “beneath the river,” as Varis commonly calls it, seems to work much like the “Void” from The Wheel of Time. It is a state of extreme focus. Only with discoloration.

It seems a truly black and white, or red and gray as it were, assessment of the world. Until people start coming up a combination of the two colors. At which point a great opportunity for explorations on morality is passed by, as the author never bothers to explore those characters in any depth. The phenomenon gets a fleeting notice, and is then brushed past to advance the plot instead.

Beyond the thermal-vision of the “river,” Varis also has something of a spidey-sense infused to her by the White Fire. She gets a burning sensation, sometimes in her chest, sometimes in her limbs, whenever someone is going to do her, or those she cares for, harm. Her abilities are never really made clear, and he seemed to making up new levels for the convenience of the plot.

     “The depths beyond the Dredge began to shift, as they’d done when I’d followed the hawk-faced man. Except now, five years after the Fire, the decay had crept closer to the Dredge itself, like a blight on the city and its streets. Mud-brick slipped to crumbling granite. Streets narrowed to alleys, then narrows, shortened and filled with heaps of decaying filth. Mildew thickened to slime, streams to sludge. The reek of the Dredge deepened, stank of piss and shit and rot. The light darkened, as if the depths of the Dredge were sucking it away, swallowing it as it swallowed everything that lingered too long, that hesitated. Soon, everything north of the River would be subsumed. I could see it happening, could feel the blight of the city on my skin.” –page 123

Of all the complaints that I may find in The Skewed Throne, poor imagery is not one of them. The above excerpt clearly describes the cities decay. But numerous references of its deterioration are tiring. Phrases like “the smell of rotten butter and piss and blood,” and “blood and piss and shit,” spring up every few pages, bludgeoning the filth into reader. It was edgy the first time. But only the first time. The overuse of these phrases create a forced grittiness that detracts from its believability.

When the story moves to upper-Amenkor, the focus shifts from the outer-decay of the environment, to the inner-corruption of the people. A social statement perhaps?

The prose is in the midst of an identity crisis. It’s written in a first-person narrative that lacks the intimacy normally associated with the voice, instead opting for the florid detail more befitting a third-person perspective. I wonder why he didn’t just go with third- person? The story would have flowed much more smoothly. As it stands, the writing is not bad, but it is a little disorienting.

Varis is a well realized character, even if nobody else is. The author takes the effort to explore the morality associated with some of her victims, and brushes by those that she doesn’t feel personally responsible for, lending her a vague sense of ambiguity. But it comes off as more of an outlet for the author to highlight the difference between murder and self-defense.

I have a few more lingering complaints. The layout of the city was unclear, and could have benefited from a map. Apparently the author believes that people have black blood, as not a drop of it comes out red. And in the present day scenes, Varis is hinted at as being a great assassin, but when the flashbacks are done, very little has taken place to actually make her so effective; her skill mostly resulting from her “gift.”

Overall Impression:  Mediocre.

Final Thoughts: The Skewed Throne manages to be interesting without becoming engaging, and Varis appealing but not compelling.

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