The Obsidian Tower

THE OBSIDIAN TOWER (Amazon) is the first in the new Rooks and Ruin series by Melissa Caruso. It’s a high fantasy coming-of-age story, with lots of politics, magic, and betrayal. Caruso’s relentless pacing, strong prose, and interesting protagonist make THE OBSIDIAN TOWER an enjoyable read.

Rxyander (Ryx) is the Warden of Gloamingard castle. As the granddaughter of the Witch Lord of Morgrain, she should help the land and people flourish and grow with her vivomancy. But Ryx’s magic is broken. If she touches or gets too near any living thing (plant, animal, or human), her magic will drain the life force from it. This unsettling ability has meant a life of fear for Ryx, always wary and on edge during every interaction. Unable to help Morgrain in traditional magical ways, she has devoted herself to becoming a good diplomat, smoothing relations between the Witch Lords of Vaskander in the north and the Raverran empire to the south.

Ryx’s duties also include the unusual injunction to guard the door to the obsidian tower at the heart of the castle. Centuries of lore and warnings surround the tower, but no one knows what lies beyond. Just the feeling around the tower makes Ryx’s skin crawl and she takes her duty seriously.

On the eve of important diplomatic negotiations that Ryx is hosting, she discovers one of the diplomats trying to break into the obsidian tower. While Ryx manages to stop her, it’s only after the woman opens the door inside the tower, setting off a chain of increasingly dire consequences.

When Ryx’s grandmother discovers that the door has been opened, she tells Ryx to get the Rookery (a sort of elite, politically neutral, magical problem-solving team). And then her grandmother goes to deal with the door–and disappears. The Rookery agrees to help Ryx in her predicament, and when they arrive at Gloamingard they discover some very, very unfortunate things about what may have been unleashed when the door was opened.

Nosy and undiplomatic aunts, frustrating cousins, duplicitous diplomats–everyone has an opinion about what should happen with the tower at the heart of Gloamingard. And with her grandmother gone, Ryx must negotiate the personal and political consequences of the door opening on her own.

Caruso has crafted a snappy narrative with pacing that reads like a thriller. Old threats are constantly evolving and new threats interrupt Ryx’s work with alarming frequency. Caruso doesn’t wait to reveal the secret at the heart of Gloamingard and instead the truth behind the secret is revealed within the first third of the book. And it’s a good secret! Magical doors are a staple in fantasy, but I was not expecting the direction Caruso took and it lead to some deliciously gnarly complications for Ryx to tackle.

While the pace of events is steady, Ryx has plenty of moments of reflection and diplomacy. As the Warden of Gloamingard, her choices have personal and political consequences and Ryx must weigh all of her actions carefully. This is, after all, not just about magical doors and politics, but about Ryx dealing with the consequences of her magic, trying to open up to new people, and finding what’s important to her in these moments of crisis.

I appreciated Caruso’s inclusiveness. Several characters, including Ryxander, are queer, or use they/them pronouns. I especially appreciated that none of the conflict in the novel stems from anyone’s identity and instead all of the conflict comes from character choices.

Caruso is careful to give even the smaller characters distinct flavor. The various members of the Rookery are introduced quickly but it’s easy to remember who’s who. There’s a number of troublesome people who make Ryx’s life difficult, but even the villains have sympathetic motivations and aren’t just caricatures. Ryx discovers that everyone (even the difficult people in her life) have their own struggles, and while hers may be unique in its consequences, their differences don’t have to divide them. Ryx loves and respects her family, but the easy companionship the Rookery offers is something entirely new to her and the ‘found family’ arc is heartwarming.

I thought Caruso crafted a clever story, and I’m looking forward to reading the second installment in this series.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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