Big gobs of Revenge and political intrigue are what’s on the menu in T.A. Frost’s Up To The Throne. Frost sets his story in a dark late Renaissance/Reformation era setting with steampunk elements. While many of his tropes are rehashes of the usual fare, there are some noteworthy elements and the main character is compelling and engaging.
“Giulia Degarno returns to the city-state of Pagalia with one intention: to kill the man who scarred her and left her for dead. But Publius Severra is no longer a mere criminal, and has risen to become a powerful politician – and perhaps the only man who can save Pagalia from anarchy. Now, as Severra stands poised to seize the throne. Giulia must choose between taking her revenge, and saving her home.
Up To The Throne is a dark fantasy novel set in a magically-enhanced Renaissance: a dangerous world of assassins, alchemists and flying machines. It is a world where artists and scholars cross paths with feuding nobles and clockwork monsters – and death is never far away.” – Goodreads blurb
Up To The Throne is first and foremost a revenge story. The protagonist Giulia Degarno has been away from Pagalia for years following an attack that scarred her face and left her for dead. Now she’s returned with one goal…kill the man who was ultimately responsible and anyone else who gets in her way.
While attempting to carry out her vengeance Giulia is caught up in the political upheaval that’s burst upon in the city. The city’s ruler is old and seemingly on death’s door and multiple contenders scheme for his seat. Among these potential rivals is Publius Severra, the man who gave the order to kill Giulia’s lover and partner in crime years ago, and who was ultimately responsible for the attack on her as well; an attack that left her scarred physically and mentally, and forced her to flee for her life.
Giulia is pretty well written. What I particularly enjoyed was she is skilled at what she does — she’s a thief now turned assassin — but she’s got limitations. She doesn’t always succeed and at times it makes for some nerve wracking suspense whether she’ll get away and survive. Giulia is set on either getting her revenge on Severra or dying in the process. She knows it isn’t the most healthy of outlooks on life and wonders at times whether she will be able to say her life was worth anything. And if she does succeed what then? She knows success may just leave her empty inside with nothing to motivate her. But she’s going to keep trying anyway. With all this hanging over her Giulia also suffers from the Melancholia, an ailment that comes on like bouts of depression stemming it seems from the attack which left her on the run and for which she takes magically enhanced medication.
For all that I like about Giulia though I can’t say I loved her character. I found throughout the book that I wasn’t as fully attached to her as I hoped I’d be. I don’t really know why this was, and can’t point to anything in particular, it’s just that even though I liked her and felt she was compelling, something was missing for me. It’s weird that I can’t place it though. Maybe it’s because I didn’t feel like Frost dug as deep with Giulia as I’d normally expect for a main character.
Other important POV characters included Severra and his rival the Chancellor (I didn’t write his name down and all of a sudden can’t remember it…not sure if that’s bad or not). Severra is a crime lord who has risen to status as a lord in the city. He uses his control over the various guilds for influence and power with his ultimate goal taking out his rivals and eventually securing the throne. The Chancellor is the right hand of the city’s ruler and is scheming to see an end to the duke so he can rise in his place. Like Severra, he uses his position of authority to take control, but in this case over the city watch and eventually bring additional forces to bear in a bid to take control. Both characters are typical villains out for their own gain. Both will stop at almost nothing to get it, including the deaths of innocents.
The world building in Up To The Throne is limited mostly to the city state of Pagalia. However other locals are visited and the wider world is hinted at in the origins of the various races and groups who dwell in the city.
It’s a world with allusions to the later Renaissance and Reformation eras of our own. Scholars teach and do research in universities while seeking patrons for their work. Black powder weapons exist alongside sword and halberd. The church is in a struggle against heretics, pagans (the fae), and believers in a new protestant like faith, and doesn’t hesitate to use force and the inquisition to keep people in line. The allusions to our world are so evident even some of the names of other countries sound like ones that exist in our world.
There are also some steampunk elements. These are primarily evident in the use of airships and the various mechanical scholarly inventions such as automated metal machinery. While I first thought these might detract from the story in the end I felt they enhanced it and made it a little more riveting. There are a few scenes where the use of the machinery will keep you on the edge of your seat.
One area of the world building that was both hit and miss for me was that of the fae. In Up To The Throne the various non-human races are all collectively called the fae. They are relegated to specific sections of the city much like a Jewish ghetto and indeed are treated much like medieval or renaissance era Jews or Roma; outcasts who are tolerated until a scapegoat is needed for a purge. The people’s racism and bigotry is heaped upon them and the fae tolerate it as best they can…until they are pushed too far that is. Using the fae as the focus of the people’s hatred makes sense in this story but it also felt a little too easy…or maybe not complicated enough.
Frost’s writing is engaging and keeps the reader interested. The pacing is on point for the most part however there were a couple of places where I felt the plot was rushed and things resolved a little too quickly and easily. There were a few anachronisms here and there (like using the word cash) and the handful of names that sounded like countries in our world which detracted a little from the story but all in all I felt it was written well.
In terms of themes and tropes the one that stands out the most is revenge. In this story it’s the sole motivator for Giulia. Revenge is a pretty common trope in fiction (fantasy or otherwise) but it never seems to get old. We keep coming back to it again and again I suppose because we all want to right the wrong and see justice served. In Up To The Throne vengeance is multifaceted. It drives all of Giulia’s actions no matter what may come and she will go after anyone who had a part in her attack, not just Severra. She’ll also not let anyone get in the way of her getting her revenge. But vengeance also motivates other events in the book and isn’t limited to Giulia. It serves as a spark in the powder keg of the social and political cauldron of Pagalia. It has the potential to spread from one seemingly solitary event to engulf the entire city. It is this deeper element of the revenge story which kept me curious about where things were going next.
Something else I appreciated in this book was the reference to mental illness. Frost terms it the Melancholia in Up To The Throne as a way to make it work in his world but it is really depression and perhaps other issues such as PTSD which threaten to overtake Giulia at times. We don’t see enough about mental illness in fantasy and the fact that people deal with it day in and day out all the time. In most fantasy worlds we read about you’d think mental illness would be much more widespread so it’s refreshing to see a character wrestling with the ways it may potentially grab hold of them.
All in all I enjoyed Up To The Throne. It kept me interested all the way to the final page. Yes there were some minor pacing issues, and yes some of the characters were a little two dimensional, but the story made up for it with the plot and themes. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for book two when it comes out to see where else Frost takes us.
I was sent a copy of this book by the author for review.
Author: T.A. Frost
Series: Dark Renaissance Book 1
Publication Date: December 18, 2018
Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars