I’m taking another short trip into the past for this installment of The Completist, only about ten years have passed since the publication of the first book in this series (2005), and five years since I read the trilogy. I turn my focus on Joshua Palmatier’s “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy of books; a series about a haunted throne and the street urchin/thief who becomes tied to the throne. At the time Joshua’s debut published, he might have been overshadowed a bit by two other authors debuting at the same time – Patrick Rothfuss (a DAW stable mate) and Scott Lynch (who tells Lies about a thief named Locke). Joshua’s books are fun, engaging, and where they have an edge over Lynch and Rothfuss’s series is the fact that the series is complete.
The Skewed Throne is both Joshua Palmatier’s debut novel and the first installment in the “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy. He takes a familiar skeleton, the downtrodden (to be generous) plucky heroine named Varis who rises above her station in the Dredge into a position of great power and tells the story through her eyes and voice of Varis. The Dredge is the slum of Palmatier’s secondary world, think Lankhmar but not as clean or Crime Alley from Batman’s Gotham City with a subtle hint of magic. Palmatier’s use of the first person narrative is engaging and utilizes a spare sensibility; no overly descriptive passages rather a blunt yet evocative relaying of information directly from Varis. This combined with Varis’s overall believability, honesty, and sympathetic aura make for an engaging read throughout.
At the age of eleven, after spending five years in the Dredge, Varis’s talents draw the attention of The Skewed Throne, its Mistress (Eryn), and one of its Guardsmen, Erick, who recruits her as an assistant assassin/knife for hire. Erick is tasked with dispensing the Mistress’s justice; in other words, killing those whom the Mistress of Amenkor deems unfit to live. Varis’s years on the street and her ability to see the “grey” (innocent) and “red” (guilty) aspects of people make her eminently suitable as Erick’s assistant. Varis realizes those she is told to kill aren’t “red” and she begins to question Erick and the Mistress. Her disillusionment leads her to Borund, a wealthy merchant who hires her as his personal bodyguard.
Palmatier keeps the reader guessing by switching up the flow events in the novel. The story opens with a scene that takes place in the “present” of the novel and before Palmatier shifts to Varis’s earlier life. Her self-chronicling is uncompromising as it brings the reader up to the “present” over the majority of the novel. Once the novel picks up steam after Palmatier’s voice comes through; however, it was difficult for me to set it aside. As the novel is the first of a trilogy, it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger; Varis arrived at a logical conclusion in her character arc, but a lot of the details were left unresolved. Palmatier was working with a very familiar storyline with the novel so figuring out just where Varis would end up at the conclusion wasn’t difficult. However, that is what makes the novel so compelling, even having a pretty good idea of where Varis’s story would conclude at the end of The Skewed Throne didn’t deter the narrative pull and overall engaging quality of Palmatier’s storytelling.
The Skewed Throne itself is an interesting plot device. It sits in the background and drives the plot and narrative, but only towards the end does its presence come fully “on screen.” At that point, the Throne becomes more than a simple plot device and a character in and of itself. With The Skewed Throne, Palmatier has set up a very promising trilogy.
The Cracked Throne, picks up immediately following its predecessor: Varis is the Mistress of Amenkor, after deposing Eryn at the conclusion of The Skewed Throne. The beginning of the novel really drew me in as Varis attempted to deal with the consequences of her actions in the first volume, which were contrasted with the realization of what being Mistress entails.
The merchants who make up the primary upper class citizens of Amenkor give Varis little time to settle in as Mistress as they look to reorganize and restock their food and sustenance supplies which have been dwindling. Varis is unsure whom to trust and is further unbalanced by the visions of destruction she experiences and shares with the former Mistress, Eryn. Although the writing was good and these plot points were essential to the overall story, I just felt they received a bit too much attention when compared to the remainder of the novel.
Palmatier expands on the Throne’s strange history as it becomes more integral to the plot. Varis soon learns the souls of the former rulers of Amekor are housed within Throne, and more importantly, so are the souls of the seven who poured their essences into the creation of the throne. The visions of destruction are both a reminder of the past and a harbinger of the future, the throne was created to keep an invading force of blue-skinned nomads, the Chorl, from destroying Amenkor. As the visions mount, it probably comes as little surprise that the Chorl attack and invade Amenkor. From this point, The Cracked Throne kicks into higher narrative gear and becomes a very difficult book to put down. This more than balances any drawn out elements of the merchant/restocking portion of the novel.
What made the second installment of the trilogy work well for me is very much what made its predecessor work – Varis’s engaging narrative voice. The reader learns about things alongside the protagonist. The former Mistress, Eryn, is the only living person who didn’t get absorbed into the Throne once her tenure on the throne concluded. As such, she is a mentor to Varis, somewhat replacing Erick. The relationship is a strange one and throughout the novel, it was difficult for me to fully trust Eryn despite Varis’s ability to do so. On the whole, The Cracked Throne shows promise of more to come in the series.
The ultimate judgment of a trilogy (or any series) can often be rendered upon it conclusion, the third and/or final book of the series. So much promise is anticipated through the first volume, increased by the second volume and revealed in the trilogy. In Joshua’s case, I’m pleased to say he finished quite strongly with The Vacant Throne.
After the devastating events at the conclusion of The Cracked Throne, Varis and her advisors make plans to attack the Chorl, rather than remain on the defensive. For the first time in the trilogy, Palmatier explores the world beyond the shores of Amenkor and what we see is just a glimpse at a larger world at play. Not all of these people are willing to help Varis and Amenkor in fighting the Chorl, heightening the tension in the novel. Varis’s main goal; however, is to reach Venitte, where The Stone Throne, a sister throne to the Skewed Throne is rumored to exist with much of the same capabilities.
Throughout the course of the trilogy, Palmatier balances Varis quite well; her frank and open nature contrasts with the inner turmoil she feels over her most staunch supporters, like Erick (the assassin who saved her from the Dredge) and William (Borund’s assistant and potential romantic interest). Because of this, Varis seems all the more human and believable. These relationships are not without their complications. Erick was seriously injured during the Chorl attack in The Cracked Throne and part of Varis’s impetus in sailing to foreign shores is to heal Erick after a very emotional scene where she fails in her own attempt at healing his wounds. Varis’s relationship with William is complicated by a new potential romantic interest for Varis. Here again that balance is struck, Varis wants to resolve her personal struggles along with those of her city-nation. Conveniently enough, the solution to all those problems lie in one place.
The trilogy worked in three acts: (I) The Skewed Throne introduced us to Varis; (II) The Cracked Throne was about Varis coming to grips with her role as ruler; and (III) The Vacant Throne offers a glimpse of the world at large. It is a solid progression of storytelling and is very effective at both revealing the full picture of Palmatier’s world and his evolution as a writer. Although Palmatier brings closure in the final volume of the trilogy, I think The Vacant Throne hints at a world rife for more stories. There’s more to learn about the Chorl, the thrones and the broad landscape we, as readers, have only glimpsed. The Vacant Throne succeeds pretty well as a final book in a trilogy and the trilogy as a whole is very enjoyable. In an SFFH landscape where readers are seeking stories which eschew the standard male protagonist, Palmatier has created a powerful and engaging female protagonist in “The Throne of Amenkor.” With the three volumes now complete, I recommend all of them.
One oddity (which does seem to happen often enough in publishing) is the switch in cover artist and design over the course of the three books; Steve Stone on the first two with Larry Rostant on the third/final book.