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Book Review: The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso Is An Intriguing Beginning To A New Series

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BY June 23, 2020
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The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso is one of those books that lured me in with the promise of prophecy and ancient magical secrets. These themes are common enough in epic fantasy stories, but Caruso puts her own spin on the tropes. The series takes place in the same world as Caruso’s Sword & Fire trilogy, but is meant to stand alone. In this new series, Caruso continues her intricate world-building, with complex characters and an intriguing magical system.

The Obsidian Tower is a compelling coming of age novel, and a solid beginning to a new fantasy series within an established world. Let’s dive into The Obsidian Tower, the first in the the Rooks and Ruin series by Melissa Caruso.

The Obsidian Tower Is Full of Secrets

The Obsidian Tower Image via Hachette Books

“Guard the tower, ward the stone. Find your answers writ in bone. Keep your trust through wits or war–nothing must unseal the door.”

These are the words that young Ryxander lives by, in her lonely castle of Gloamingard. Ryx lives with her powerful mage of a grandmother who is the guardian of their land. Her blood is tied directly to the earth, but Ryxander’s magic is damaged. She comes from a long line of mages who can manipulate life forces to make things grow. But Ryx’s magic can only make living things wither, and she can kill with a touch.

Unable to control her magic, Ryx has spent her life starved of touch and lonely for companionship. She cannot be the heir to the castle, she cannot make an advantageous marriage for her country. So she works instead as a diplomat, struggling to maintain a fragile peace among the divided nations who all treat magic very differently.

A magical incident – and an accidental death – kicks off the action in the book, and Caruso wastes no time getting there. What unfolds is a series of intrigues, with assassins trying to take down Ryx’s family members as Ryx herself attempts to navigate politically charged waters in an effort to avoid a war. All this while an unknown dark magic seeps into the castle, and into the world beyond.

Characterization Is Key In The Obsidian Tower

The Obsidian Tower Image via Hachette Books

The characters in The Obsidian Tower are one of the book’s strongest elements. Caruso introduces a fairly large ensemble cast, but each character is distinctive and comes to life vividly on the page. Ryx is a compelling character in her own right. She is a natural pacifist who is horrified at the fact that she has taken lives unwittingly. Ryx grapples with her own magical powers, and must make difficult choices for the good of her people. Because of her damaged magic, Ryx has been forced to develop other skills to help her country and she works hard at diplomacy, and to lead her people when her grandmother mysteriously disappears.

Ryx is also clearly lonely, and when she finally finds companions in the form of the Rookery she is joyful and apprehensive about finding others who understand her. The members of the Rookery are another group of unique characters, and it is clear that this book is setting up more adventures for them in the future. A group of magical scholars who remain neutral in political affairs, their job is investigate magical accidents and artifacts that might pose a threat to the world. Some of them are fighters, others are scholars, or diplomats. But they all clearly have their own personalities, and are fiercely loyal to one another.

It is also in this group that Caruso effortlessly weaves in bisexual characters and asexual characters, they are not unusual in the fantasy world that she has built. Ryx herself is clearly bisexual, and her attraction to both male and female characters is not considered unusual. There is also a gender-neutral character whose pronoun is they/them, another intriguing character whose gender status is simply part of who they are as opposed to something unnatural or strange in this world.

Political Intrigue Abounds In Caruso’s Work

Obsidian Tower Image via Author’s Twitter

Caruso is deft in weaving political intrigue amongst the countries in the book. Ryx’s home of Morgraine is part of Vaskander. This nation ruled by competing Witch Lords who are constantly trying to gain more power and land. In contrast is Revarra, a nation who has placed restrictions on magic and mages in power. These countries are very different in their approach to magic, and they naturally distrust one another. Characters from each area are introduced and their differing perspectives on the use of magic lends complexity to the subject.

The political tension is palpable throughout the book as Ryx struggles to maintain peace, and stave off a greater disaster. There are no clear good guys or bad guys when it comes to the countries involved. Instead Caruso makes it clear that each nation has their own strengths and weaknesses, and various factions that could make the world a much better or far worse place. This realistic approach to worldbuilding makes Caruso’s setting feel grounded and believable.

And like so many politicians, it can be hard to know who can be trusted. Every character has their own motivation, and it is often not what you expect. Enemies turn out to be friends, and friends become enemies. Caruso’s antagonists are hardly one-note. Each of them has their own reasoning for their actions and it is easy to understand why they act in certain ways. There is little in the way of binary good and evil in this book. Even the demons who threaten to spill out into the world and possess everyone have more nuance than expected. Caruso is clearly interested in what makes people tick, and why they choose certain paths. And in The Obsidian Tower, she explores that in a fascinating way that is sure to pay off in later books.

The Obsidian Tower is out now via Orbit Books. For more reviews and genre news, follow Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter today.

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Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.

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