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2 June 2020

Review - The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso

Cover by Peter Bollinger
The Obsidian Tower (Rooks and Ruin, 1)
Melissa Caruso
Orbit, 2 June (e), 4 June (PB) 2020
Available as: PB, 488pp, e
Read as: PB
ISBN: 9780356513188

In The Obsidian Tower, Caruso returns to the content of Eruvia some 150 years after the events of her previous Swords and Fire trilogy. The cruel enslavement of mages in Raverra is no more, and the focus of this first book in Rooks and Ruin is on the territory of Morgrain which is part of Vaskandar.

I enjoyed seeing things from the perspective of a region ruled by one of the Witch Lords (actually, the Lady of Owls) and in fact that's not the only perspective shift we see here. What will strike the reader immediately, I think, is the strange, but utterly timely, position of Caruso's main protagonist, Exalted Ryxander ("Ryx" to her friends). Put simply, Rxy has to keep a distance from anyone else, in case they die. An early scene sees her recall meeting a friend, each sat at one end of a bench, clearly maintaining the requisite 2m social distance. Caruso swears that she didn't use a crystal ball, or other means of divination, to pitch her story so squarely at our present circumstances but she's clearly off to something of a head start in reflecting the world of 2020.

The detailed reason for Ryx's behaviour are something I'll leave for now - spoilers! - but it is intimately bound to her position I the magical hierarchy of Vaskander and Caruso imagines it, and the challenges it poses, well, from the frightened pageboy who realises too late that he's close to the faces of the castle servants as they to the real possibility - present throughout this book - that Ryx will be brought to account for a death under the harsh customs of her nation.

As if that threat wasn't enough, the book presents us with an intricate mixture of ancient magics, modern diplomacy, pigheaded will-to-power and the simple desire of a young woman to live a little (not easy, in her particular circumstances). Delegations from hostile powers have assembled at Ryx's home, Gloamingard, to settle a territorial dispute and the fate of the content - war or peace - may turn on the result. Castle Gloamingard has something of the incremental, haphazard construction of a Gormenghast with forgotten corridors, hidden rooms and secrets passageways. It also harbours a four thousand years old secret - a doorway that must not be opened.

Caruso has sone fun with that trope. Of course we know that door's going to open! Of course we know the consequences will be bad! But rather than dwell on what horrors may follows - we do find out, but not for a good while - we are given the politics around the event. Imagine Denethor, Saruman, Gandalf and Sauron's ambassador sitting down too negotiate the fate of the Ring. Yes, Ryx is staging a peace conference, complicated by a series of murders (for one of which she is being blamed) while coping with the absence of a key ally and her own, personal difficulties. Essentially a bad day at the office (for a very special value of "office").

The book succeeds brilliantly, forcing Ryx to play for high stakes against some really, really awkward people. The action mostly takes place within Gloamingard itself, giving the book - as the murders begin - a bit of the air of a country house mystery (for a very special value of "country house"). One difference is that country house mysteries don't generally invoke continent-scale warfare.

Another is that they don't normally have protagonists as absorbing, well drawn and engaging as Ryx. In her, Caruso has given us a truly memorable woman, struggling to live with and overcome disadvantages in a society that's snootily obsessed with skills and talents and which attempts non too subtly to silence and marginalise her. She's having none of that, and fiercely pursues both what she sees as her duty to her people and her desire for some life of her own. Of course, the question of what will happen if - when - those aims collide hangs over this book - but I'd trust Ryx to find a way through in the end.

All in all this is a zinger of a book, suggesting that Rooks and Ruin will be every bit as readable, absorbing and epic as was Swords and Fire. If not more.

The Obsidian Tower is published in the UK as an e-book on 2 June and as a paperback on 4th. I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit UK for an advance copy to consider for review.

For more information about The Obsidian Tower, see the publisher's website here.

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