Up To The Throne by T.A. Frost

Up To The Throne by T.A. Frost

Giulia Degarno is out for revenge. But that’s only half the story.

Up To The Throne is the first in Toby Frost’s ‘Dark Renaissance’ fantasy series, which takes place in, oddly enough, a dark fantasy version of the Renaissance. Published in 2018, it’s set in what could easily be an alternate sixteenth-century Italian city-state, where crossbows and muskets pair with airships, clockwork weapons and magical enchantments. If Guy Gavriel Kay’s work is our world with a ‘quarter-turn toward the fantastic,’ here is almost a full turn, but with all the Machiavellian machinations you’d expect from the Borgias or Medicis.

The lead character Giulia is a thief…or a thief catcher, or a bodyguard or whatever any particular job requires. Six years after a powerful gangster left her lover dead and her scarred inside and out, she’s ready to return to the city where it all went down to exact vengeance. The first chapter lays it all out in vivid exposition-through-action that reminds me of a Thief or Dishonored game.

(By the way, if you like Dishonored, watch my playthrough & lore commentary of the whole game!)

But what seems at first a simple revenge plot expands almost from the start. Pagalia is a thriving city ostensibly ruled by a scheming chancellor and an aging Prince everyone thinks feeble, but who just might have one more trick up his bloody sleeve. It’s populated by humans of all stripes, as well as various species of ‘fey folk’ who play the part of an oppressed underclass, confined to certain quarters and subject to harassment from the church authorities. Exactly the types Giulia has befriended in her quest, especially the hammer-wielding, honor-obsessed dwarrow priest Grodrin. The hunt for her targets is set amid the backdrop of a power struggle between nobles, assassins, zealots ready to bring the axe down on any convenient ‘heretics,’ and gang bosses (or guild bosses, depending on who you ask). And it just so happens that her main target, Publius Severra, is one of those bosses, having risen from the streets to something approximating respectability. The question is not just can Giulia get to him, but who will get to him first?

This is an excellently written tale that starts off seeming to fall into the expected grimdark fantasy tropes, but turns them around in delightful ways. Giulia is a tough bitch, but she’s not a one-note edgelord. She is often quite kind and polite if she’s not aiming to kill you, and her non-relationship with adorably naive student Marcellus is touching, though sad in its impossibility. As she works her way through targets, starting from easy to harder to the final boss almost in a LitRPG kind of way, the traumatic effects of her past and present become more and more pronounced. Dark fantasy characters that actually have to deal with trauma and depression are a refreshing change of pace. Don’t worry, though—it never gets sappy or has characters make unrealistic changes of heart to push a message. The question of what happens after revenge is brought up more than once. I actually don’t think Giulia would be very good friends with Monza Murcatto, though I’m sure others would disagree.

Speaking of pace, it starts off as a bit of a slow burn, then picks up and accelerates toward an explosive finale where multiple plot lines intertwine, in a Dune-like sort of way. Some may find this a challenge to tackle, but I enjoy this type of construction as long as it’s done well, and I think it is here. I will say that it could do with a few less named evil henchmen, as they can sometimes meld together. There were a couple characters at the beginning that I got confused, but they eventually grew distinct enough I had no trouble. One thing I always love reading is the seemingly minor side character who turns out to be much more significant, either as pro or antagonist, than you ever guessed even though the signs were there the whole time!

I won’t spoil the ending but I hope it’s not too much to say that although this is the first in a series, the story here stands pretty much on its own, with the next volume, Blood Under Water, being a wholly new tale. I would recommend Up To The Throne to readers who would like a break from the absolute darkest of grimdark and who don’t mind obvious real history stand-ins in their fantasy.


Toby Frost’s website: https://www.tobyfrostauthor.co.uk/


Pairs well with: Zero Gravity Pisolino Italian Pilsner

Since Up To The Throne takes place in a fantasy Renaissance Italy, I thought I’d pair it with an Italian style Pilsner. I don’t have any Pilsner glasses, but I have this lab beaker with a similar shape! Don’t worry, it’s clean. This 5.5% ABV lager, which is actually from Zero Gravity in Vermont but uses Eraclea ‘terroir pilsner malt grown near the Adriatic Sea,’ is light golden in color. It pours with a hefty head that dissipates slowly. It has light floral and citrusy aromas almost reminiscent of an IPA, but those all pull back to stand equal with a light malty bread flavor with medium carbonation, almost like lemon bread or lemon crackers. The 26 IBUs are all on the finish, where the light sweetness is countered by just a bit of bitterness. This is an easy drinking beer, kind of like a session lager’s big brother. The name ‘Pisolino’ means afternoon nap, so that makes sense. Clean, crisp and refreshing, nothing really stands out as exceptional but just all-around chill. Probably more appropriate to spring or summer rather than October, but it still satisfies. A couple reviews say it goes well with pizza, which I can easily believe. Cent’anni!


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