Review: The Obsidian Tower

Posted: June 2, 2020 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Melissa Caruso, Fantasy, Young Adult, LGBTQ+

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.

A high fantasy coming-of-age story, THE OBSIDIAN TOWER has relentless pacing, strong prose, and interesting protagonist that make it a great read.

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.

  • Recommended Age: 12+
  • Language: Nope.
  • Violence: Yes, fighting with weapons, death, some torture.
  • Sex: Not even a smooch. Some flirting.

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