The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This author falls into what I call the "torture your characters" school, because that's what she does all through this book. Not literally, but in the sense of everything that happens making the situation worse and worse, until as a reader you're clenching your teeth and wondering how on earth the characters are going to get out of it. By this time you're fully invested in these characters and really hoping they can extricate themselves from this terrible situation, so you know, that makes the book a success.
I suppose this could be called an epic fantasy, but it doesn't have the headhopping and multiple points of view of most books of its ilk. Our POV character stays firmly with one person, Ryxander the Warden of Gloamingard. Gloamingard is an ancient castle guarding a terrible secret, and Ryx is the granddaughter of the "immortal Witch Lord of Morgrain, the Lady of Owls herself, whose magic coursed so deep through her domain she could feel the step of every rabbit and the fall of every leaf." But despite being born into this family of vivomancers, whose "life magic flowed in our veins," Ryx's magic is flawed, killing rather than nurturing. No one can touch her unless that person is a powerful mage braced against her magical pull, because she will suck the life force right out of a person (or a plant or animal) and kill them. But she has made a place for herself in Gloamingard, carrying out her duties as Warden and concentrating on the politics and diplomacy of her domain and country, Vaskander. As the book opens, we see her in that role, watching the unexpected arrival of an envoy from a neighboring country, the Serene Empire, for diplomatic talks. The other party to these talks, from the domain of Alevar, sends the Exalted Lamiel, the betrothed of the Shrike Lord, the Witch Lord of Alevar. Unfortunately, Lamiel is meddlesome and power-hungry and ends up seeking out the heart of Gloamingard Castle, the Obsidian Tower, and the Door the family has guarded for four thousand years. In her attempt to keep Lamiel away from what is inside, Ryx ends up touching the woman and killing her.
This starts the downward spiral of the plot, with each chapter making the stakes higher and higher. What is inside the Obsidian Tower is a gate to the Nine Hells, the domain of energy demons that spawned an invasion four thousand years ago, known as the Dark Days, that nearly destroyed all of civilization. Ryx needs to destroy it, but to do so she needs to navigate the treacherous political currents of the Serene Empire and Alevar, who are quite likely to invade Morgrain once news of this gets out. She also has to deal with the fact that when she touched the obelisk when she was tussling with Lamiel, she inadvertently let a demon slip through--and this demon has possessed her grandmother, the Witch Lord of Morgrain.
It's a mess. But Ryxander has help, in the form of the Rookery, people who deal with magical disasters such as this. More than helping her, these people slowly become her friends and found family, freeing her from the isolated existence she has endured all her life. In the end, she walls off the gate from her demon-possessed grandmother, which for the moment is all she and the Rookery can do. It's a hard-fought victory, and the ultimate solution to the problem will have to wait till the next book. But I really liked the weaving of plot, character, and politics, and the careful, steady ratcheting up of suspense throughout. The only thing that kept this book from being five stars is the character of Severin, Ryx's love interest and the brother of the Shrike Lord, who also comes to Gloamingard demanding penance for Lamiel's death. He was far too browbeaten, traumatized and cowardly (and he even admitted to being the last), and not really fleshed out as a character. (Although I guess my mental cries of "Will you finally stand up to your brother and do something!" added to the book's nail-biting climax.)
I've already placed a hold on the second book in the series, which I will pick up from the library in the next few days. I can't wait to see what happens next.
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