Varis is a young urchin, "gutterscum" by her own admission, a street smart thief who manages to survive on the margin by her own wits, resorting to violence when the circumstances are forced upon her. Living from hand to mouth in "The Dredge", a shanty town and slum beyond the borders of Amenkor, her developing abilities for murder and thievery attract the attention of Erick, a royal guardsman and assassin who seeks out and kills any marks the ruling Mistress has judged must be eliminated. Under Erick's tutelage her abilities are honed to a ruthless edge but Varis has another skill she has not disclosed to anyone - an innate magic she calls "The River", a supernatural flow into which she can submerge herself. In "The River" she sees evil in shades of red and innocence in shades of gray.
When Erick assigns her to kill a mark that Varis knows to be innocent, their ways part and Varis retreats back to the core of Amenkor proper. Once again, her agility, her survival skills and her murderous ability with knives bring her under scrutiny. Borund, a local merchant, hires her as a bodyguard and Varis finds herself embroiled in a conspiracy among the Amenkor merchants, an attempt to seize monopolistic control of trade at a time when the survival of the city itself seems in question. The First Mistress seems to be losing her sanity and is issuing nonsensical orders. The pitiless unfolding of events places Varis in the position of being the only one who can save Amenkor!
A fine plot line with much promise, to be sure! And, in his debut outing, Palmatier has certainly crafted his story with enviable writing skills in the development of his characters, in the clever narration of exciting action sequences, and in the layout of easy-flowing natural dialogue. Varis' own brief and lucid description of her young life seems brutal in its crystalline clarity but totally natural in its presentation:
"I decided I'd be better off on my own. So I left. I ran away, moved deeper into the slums beyond the Dredge. I lived like an animal there, scrounging in garbage heaps, eating anything I could find, scraps you and Borund wouldn't even feed to a dog. I was dying and I didn't even know it."
But I also felt that Palmatier was tip-toeing across a knife edged ridge that far too narrow for my liking - the difficult decision an author must make about how much to introduce, how much to disclose, how much to resolve and how much to leave for explanation and completion in future works! Oh sure, there is obviously a sequel in the works. But there are only two plot devices which move "The Skewed Throne" from normal medieval fiction into the realm of fantasy - the magic of "The River" and "The White Fire", some sort of bizarre, powerful event that sweeps through Amenkor from time to time! Even Varis owns up to having no idea about the meaning of The Fire:
"I felt its purpose. Nothing to do with Amenkor, nothing to do with me. It was residual energy, the remains of an event so powerful it had stretched across the ocean, burned across the sea from a distant land. The consequence of a magic that no one in the throne knew the intent of, that was totally unfamiliar. It was nothing to us."
Personally, I'd need more resolution in this introductory novel to move it to a higher rating as a stand alone novel. But (and this is a fervent hope), in the belief that all will come clear in future novels, I'll certainly move on to the second novel in the trilogy "The Cracked Throne" and recommend it to other fantasy lovers as well.
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About the reviewer
Paul Weiss (cpw1952)
A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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