I received this novel from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
Having greatly enjoyed Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy, I was quite eager to sample her new work, and also curious to see her world from the point of view of the Raverran Serene Empire’s adversaries from previous books. Where the magic present in Raverra is controlled by placing jesses – i.e. restraining bracelets – on people endowed with magical powers, in Vaskandar mages are free to exert their powers, and the strongest among them rule over the realms to which they are intimately connected, engaging in endless strife for supremacy with their neighbors. In Swords and Fire, looking at Vaskandar through Raverran eyes, this country seemed to pose a constant threat: military aggression against diplomacy; undisciplined magic against tight control of powers; authoritarian rule against the compromise of politics. The Obsidian Tower looks on Vaskandar from the inside, and shows us that it’s indeed all a matter of perspective…
For four thousand years, the castle of Gloaminguard stood as protection over a magically sealed black tower: the family’s lore stresses emphatically that its door must remain closed at all costs. Ryx is the latest descendant of the family holding Gloaminguard, appointed warden of the castle by her grandmother, a powerful Witch Lord called the Lady of Owls. Ryx is however burdened by the impossibility of wielding her magic: in a family of vivomancers, mages with the ability to interact with the flora and fauna of their territories, the young woman is cursed by a killing touch – every living thing that comes into close contact with her is doomed to wither and die. As Gloaminguard is getting ready to host a meeting between Raverran and Vaskandran emissaries for the peaceful solution of a controversy, one of the envoys tries to circumvent the tower’s safeguards and is accidentally killed by Ryx as she tries to stop the ill-advised attempt of her guest.
Faced with the intricate task of juggling the consequences of the accident, the volatile political situation and the survival of her grandmother’s realm, Ryx finds herself enmeshed in a progressively dangerous game in which every new discovery leads to unexpected pitfalls and impossible choices, as the old menace from the newly-awakened Tower looms closer and threatens to plunge the whole world in a maelstrom of destruction.
The Obsidian Tower is a thoroughly captivating read, where the constantly raising stakes keep increasing the pressure, which at times becomes unbearable, because we see the situation unfold from Ryx’s point of view, so that the concatenation of events and the discoveries she makes along the way put her in an untenable position better described as “damned if I do, damned if I don’t”, and make the possible outcome quite unpredictable. Ryx is a brilliantly designed character, one that makes it easy to root for her: a mysterious childhood illness caused her blossoming vivomancy powers to deteriorate, turning into a life-sucking force that prevents her from any contact with living creatures – only a powerful mage, preparing for the onslaught of her magic, can survive her touch and so Ryx grew up in physical isolation, feared by everyone and needing to be on constant alert against any kind of proximity.
The sympathy Ryx engenders in the readers does not come from compassion for her plight, but from admiration for her inner strength and for her will to still be an effective member of her family despite the lethal handicap she suffers. As the situation in Gloaminguard becomes more and more complicated, she draws from the well of strength and wisdom she built over the years and shows her worth as a balancing element despite the opposing political plays of the two nations and the unhelpful interference from some of her family members. The only moments when she succumbs to wistfulness are those in which she observes the interactions between the members of the Rookery – a sort of super partes agency dealing with magical phenomena – and sees the easy camaraderie, the subliminal understanding born of shared experiences, and realizes how empty and bleak her existence has been, but still she refuses to let such feelings dominate her.
As for the Rookery, they represent the lighter side of the story: a combination of magical investigators and spies wielding gadgets that would be the envy of 007, they are a team composed by disparate individuals whose peculiarities contribute to the success of the group. We have a leader who is both bookish and action-oriented; a science enthusiast saddled with a terrible past; an infiltration agent gifted by a delightfully roguish personality; and a warrior who at times needs to be told that her sword is not necessarily the only answer. The Rookery’s easy acceptance of Ryx, despite the danger she poses, is a breath of fresh air not only for the young woman herself, but for the reader as well, because it’s painful to see how she’s feared and shunned even by people who saw her grow up and seem unable to avoid the automatic warding sign they make at her passage. Since the series’ title mentions Rooks, it is my strong hope that I will see much more of the Rookery’s antics in the next books.
Story-wise this novel is the intriguing introduction to a further exploration of the world created by Melissa Caruso: much as I enjoyed visiting Raverra and its Venice Republic-like world of politics and compromise, this glimpse of Vaskandar is even more appealing thanks to the unruly quality of its magic, the constant warfare (declared or not) between realms and the fascinating concept of connection between mages and their territory, so that nature itself, when necessary, can intervene over humans, either helping or hindering them. Or worse – there is a scene in The Obsidian Tower, involving a mad Witch Lord and thorny bushes, that had me wincing in sympathetic pain…
On this background are set interesting issues as friendship and trust, responsibility and duty, all rolled up with enigmatic prophecies from the past which can still have impact on the present – and probably the future, since this story is only at its beginning. And with such a strong beginning, we can only predict that the best is still to come.