Fantasy author Daniel Polansky recently took to Reddit’s r/fantasy subreddit to talk about his new novel Those Above (which kicks off his The Empty Throne duology) and The Builders, part of Tor.com’s inaugural novella list. The AMA (Ask Me Anything) discussion thread spanned from definitions of noir fantasy to how best to kill characters to who he would want on his “evil author supervillains” team.
Polansky gamely poked fun at himself, first referring to himself as “a writer of genre fiction, which is a rather precious way of saying that at some point in my books (generally speaking, early and often) people die violently.” When asked to suggest a clickbait article title for Those Above, he jokingly offered up “Elves with swords! Chainmail bikinis! Small words! BEYONCE BEYONCE BEYONCE!” Check out the highlights from his r/fantasy AMA!
Drawing on Real-World History:
tomunro: I loved Low Town and particularly the historical resonances that I found between the War with the Dren and the first world war (Trench warfare, lions led by donkeys etc).
To what extent have periods of history inspired you and have any in particular contributed to Those Above?
DP: Thanks much! I’m a big history buff and that definitely comes out in Those Above. Concretely a lot of the influences are pretty obvious, I crib a lot from the late Byzantine empire in terms of some of the military stuff. For the Eternal (who are the god-like race in Those Above) I stole from a lot of different periods/epochs/nations, maybe some from the Mesoamerican socities but also a lot from medieval Japanese culture, by which I guess I pretty much mean the Tale of Genji.
But more broadly I like to think that some of the sense I’ve gotten about the strange sweep and scale of human history, about decay and imperial overreach and the way in which individual free will impacts and is impacted by the currents of the age, has made its way in Those Above. Read it and let me know!
On Continuing to Bring the Noir:
Several Redditors wanted to know if Polansky would carry the noir style of Low Town into future projects, and he was able to point to at least one:
I would say that The Builders, which should be out in fall of next year as part of Tor’s new novella imprint, is almost excessively a certain type of noir. I definitely think I have some more of those sorts of stories in me, but we’ll have to see how things develop. I never really have plans, I sort of just stumble through things.
User harnagarna wanted to know what made Polansky switch from “the relatively small and contained noir setting of the Low Town books to this grand-scaled multiple POV, multiple country-set epic” of Those Above. Polansky responded:
I’ve actually been thinking about some version of this all day and I just honestly cannot quite remember what made me do this. Isn’t that odd? Perhaps I liked the idea of trying to do something bigger and broader and very different then Low Town, something that stretched me a little bit. But I can’t ever remember actually thinking that. It seems to me it was more small ideas shading into larger ones, like I started thinking about how weird it would be if elves existed and what would that actually be like, how that would effect our conception of ourselves as humans, and I wanted to play with that a while, and then one thing led into another into another and etc.
When asked if the new series would have any noir elements, he did say:
There is crime and depravity and backstabbing and sordid motivations and so forth. Also, one of the viewpoints is a sort of up and coming criminal, so there’s that.
How to Kill Your Characters:
Mitriel: How does one master killing characters (violently, early and often) in his books? Any special daily training you do? Do you even feel a thing afterwards anymore?
DP: I love killing my characters. I am absolutely ruthless about it. They aren’t my friends, they’re aspects of my psyche I like to poke at in an unfriendly fashion. And I don’t care what Martin says, when he wrote the Red Wedding he was laughing at the thought of all us poor suckers weeping.
Everyone’s Favorite Anti-Hero
The Warden from Low Town (who is one of Myke Cole’s favorite despicably flawed characters) got a bit of attention in the thread, with Polansky succinctly describing him as “my attempt at the classic hard-boiled anti-hero filtered through a really miserable low fantasy medievalesque setting.”
He told another commenter, “Part of me would like to go back to the Warden at some point because his voice came so effortlessly to me by the end of my time working with him but it’s easy for a series like that to descend into self-parody so I’m not sure if I ever will.”
On Grimdark and Similar Books:
RamblingAnt: As someone that hasn’t read any of your works ’YET’, what books are similar to yours?
DP: Hahaha! Some people say that I am squarely in the ’Grim Dark’ camp, i.e. Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie but I can’t speak about that objectively. A review of Those Above compared it to I, Claudius meets Tolkien with a dash of Chandler, and I thought that was immensely flattering.
Making Special In-World Arrangements:
youandcorey: How much do you spend for a good kilo dream vine and can you hook me up?
DP: Honestly I can’t do the fake world math. My fake world math is complete bullshit, I’m just winging it. Also, how much could you get it for, or how much could I get it for? Because, obviously, I’d want to make sure of my cut.
Evil Authors Assemble!
When asked by elquesogrande to assemble “the roughest, evilest, most powerful author supervillain team on the planet,” Polansky delivered with his ideal roster:
The team would be led by Mark Lawrence because his contests display elaborate planning and he’s got an ax to grind on the world. Stark Holborn, obviously, who is savage as a wolf in February and hard as bitter gristle. Robert Jackson Bennet might legitimately be a serial killer. John Hornor Jacobs because he has that voice, you know that voice, I mean it’s like an oak cask. Lavie Tidhar would slip in and out because although he’s clever and essentially amoral he would also have to make a big show of how he’s the lone wolf anti-hero type and refuses to play by the rules. Somehow we would have mind-controlled Myke Cole into being the muscle. Actually Myke Cole has got a dark side that he’s not even aware of, I think we could outright swing him to darkness. Our HQ would obviously be on the moon, and I would think our first plan would begin and possibly end with drinking.
When asked if he had any favorite quotes, Polansky shared this piece of wisdom that he attributed to Herodotus, father of history: “Of all the miseries to which men are prey, this is the most hateful—to understand something fully but be impotent to effect it.”