The Obsidian Tower

Book cover: The Obsidian Tower - Melissa CarusoIn Vaskandar, everything boils down to power. As a Witchlord’s mage-marked granddaughter, Ryx is undeniably powerful. But her magic is flawed: it kills everything she touches. When she accidentally kills a visiting dignitary, she gives an ambitious neighbour a pretext for war… which is about to be the least of her worries.

Melissa Caruso rocketed into my list of favourite authors with her debut trilogy, Swords and Fire, so I was understandably excited to hear that a new trilogy was kicking off last year. So why has it taken me so long to get round to reading it? Eh, 2020. On the plus side, this meant I got to kick off 2021 with an entertaining new adventure.

The Obsidian Tower is once again set on the continent of Eruvia, but this time our heroine is a native of Vaskandar, home of the Witchlords. Powerful vivomancers, Witchlords draw their power from the life force of their subjects and are functionally immortal, with near-total control over their domains. Why yes, the implications are as terrifying as they sound – but thankfully not all Witchlords are terrible people. The Lady of Owls is as fierce as her namesakes, but largely a protective sort who uses her power for the good of her people.

Her granddaughter Ryx, on the other hand, is feared and reviled: a vivomancer whose magic is death.

In some domains this would have been a death sentence, but Ryx was raised by the Lady – one of the few who can touch Ryx and live – to be a clever, cautious, compassionate young woman. She has learned the arts of diplomacy from her Raverran mother and the discipline of restraint from her grandmother; she has a position of prestige as Seneschal of Gloamingard, although she can never inherit the domain lest she kill everyone in Morgrain (Witchlords don’t die of old age, but they can die). And she can never, ever touch anything living. Petting a cat will end badly (for the cat). Riding a horse will mean the end of the road (for the horse). Even brushing past a plant – you get the idea.

One of the reasons I love Caruso’s work is that she never hesitates to explore the implications of her ideas. Ryx’s horrifying power informs every part of her life, which is defined largely by the things she can never do. She is lonely, touch-starved, socially awkward and rigidly controlled, not to mention deeply self-critical. Ryx could easily have become bitter or withdrawn, but she’s a fundamentally good person, wanting only to serve her people to the best of her ability. And, achingly, to be touched: the scene in which her mother wears a scarf so that Ryx can hold her mother’s warmth and scent close for a moment destroyed me.

There is a solution to Ryx’s predicament: wear a jess. The magical bracelet would bind her power and make her safe; but it would also put her – and her power – in the hands of a Raverran Falconer. Ryx may be half-Raverran, but the Serene Empire remains Vaskandar’s most regular antagonist, and a jess is anathema to any Witchlord.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Sure enough, Ryx accidentally kills someone whose death threatens the peace between three sovereign states (and who absolutely deserves it, just saying) – and is offered a jess by the Rookery, a notionally independent taskforce who handle magical malfeasance. The death is just the very beginning of a chain of events that start with the diplomatic crisis it causes and quickly escalates to the threat of the gates of Hell itself opening to unleash the forces of chaos on the world.

Sounds extra? Wait till you meet the mage-marked cousin who wears a musical cloak of purple butterflies and rides a giant weasel. Vaskandar is a land governed by magic, where you can be as idiosyncratic as you wish if you have the power to back it up. Everything here veers between eccentricity and a ruthlessness that is often expressed as uncurbed cruelty, but however dark Vaskandar can get, Melissa Caruso has her tone firmly in hand. Ryx is well-intentioned and good-hearted, and her Rookery allies are all snarky competence and surprising compassion, with clear-cut rules they abide by (rule four: talking before stabbing).

I know I’m in safe hands with Melissa Caruso, and The Obsidian Tower was no exception. If it feels awfully similar to Swords and Fire in some ways, they’re good ways: an epic plot, lovable if conflicted cast, unreliable allies and dastardly villains. I particularly appreciated Ryx’s unambiguously positive relationship with her grandmother and the casual inclusion of bi, ace and nonbinary characters. The element I was least satisfied with was the flirtatious enemies to conflicted lovers romance, although I have some sympathy for Severin’s circumstances (as a Vaskandran, your every breath is at your Witchlord’s whim, so betraying them is a big ask).

But my favourite element was the Rookery itself. Forget the high stakes plot, I’d be happy if The Obsidian Tower had been the start of a series about Ryx running away to join the Rookery and defuse a series of low-key magical dramas. I delighted in the scenes where they tried to puzzle their way through the Gloaming Lore with a combination of erudition, espionage and alchemy; and I adored stab-happy Ashe. Still, I’m not complaining: Rooks and Ruin is all set to be an entertaining ride as Ryx and friends try to save the world from gods who nearly destroyed it once before.