The Obsidian Tower
by Melissa Caruso
528pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 9/10
Amazon Rating: 4.4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.07/5

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The Obsidian Tower was easily one of my most anticipated books of this year after reading Melissa Caruso’s first trilogy, Swords and Fire (The Tethered MageThe Defiant HeirThe Unbound Empire), and I loved it as well. This novel is the first book in the Rooks and Ruin trilogy, a series with new characters set in the same world as Swords and Fire about 150 years after the end of the previous books. Given that, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to read the other three books before The Obsidian Tower. I would recommend it since they’re fantastic and I think having some familiarity with the world and history occasionally makes some of the details more interesting, but I don’t think there’s any reason not to start here if you’re especially drawn to this series or find it easier to get a hold of than the others. (In my opinion, this is also a stronger first volume, even though it did take longer to completely hook me than The Tethered Mage.)

There are two kinds of magic.

There is the kind that lifts you up and fills you with wonder, saving you when all is lost or opening doors to new worlds of possibility. And there is the kind that wrecks you, that shatters you, bitter in your mouth and jagged in your hand, breaking everything you touch.

Mine was the second kind.

As a Witch Lord’s granddaughter who inherited some of her power, Ryx should have life-sustaining magic. But instead of making plants and animals thrive, her magic kills everything—and everyone—she touches.

After her destructive power killed a man when she was just four years old, Ryx went to live with her grandmother. She learned to avoid stables and crowds and to dive out of the way if anyone came too near, and she walked a separate path through the castle to prevent others from accidentally bumping into her and dying. Many of her family members viewed her and her twisted vivomancy as a danger, and they were not at all pleased when Ryx came of age to become a Warden and was charged with protection of her grandmother’s castle—complete with the mysterious Black Tower their family has guarded for four thousand years, passing down the knowledge that “nothing must unseal the Door” from generation to generation.

Since she could not be a typical Warden due to exuding death, Ryx found another way to help her land and people: developing good relations with her mother’s homeland, the Serene Empire. After a few years of doing this diplomatic work, Ryx is trusted with negotiating peace between one of the Witch Lords and the Empire. This would be plenty difficult in and of itself considering the Shrike Lord is the one involved, but it’s even more challenging than expected when his ambassador/fiancée opens the Door to the Black Tower—but not for long, since she comes into contact with Ryx and dies when the castle’s Warden tries to prevent her from further meddling.

But the death of an ambassador betrothed to the Shrike Lord is only the beginning of Ryx’s problems. Her grandmother mysteriously disappears, her aunt annoyingly appears, negotiations continue with the brother of the now-vengeful Shrike Lord—and the more Ryx and a team of magical experts learn about the Black Tower, the more they fear the consequences of the Door being unsealed, even briefly.

The Obsidian Tower drew me in immediately with its opening lines (quoted above) and the following description of Ryx’s magic, but after that, how much it gripped me varied throughout the first 20% or so. It is decently paced from the start, but it also introduced a lot of different characters between the delegations showing up for peace negotiations, a team specializing in analyzing magical threats to the world tasked with examining the Door, a friend keeping an eye on events for their father, and curious, nosy, and/or domineering family members who don’t believe Ryx should be in charge. Plus there’s Whisper, a fox-like chimera who has resided in the castle for as long as anyone can remember and knows a lot of its secrets—but can’t share much of what he knows due to a promise he made. Many of these characters were intriguing (and how I loved Whisper), but I think making the acquaintance of so many of them is mainly why I felt the novel didn’t immediately hit its stride.

But once I was hooked, I was well and truly hooked. Even though I’ve been finding it difficult to get into books for the last few months, The Obsidian Tower kept me turning the pages long after I probably should have put it down to do chores or sleep. Best of all, it’s one of those rare books that kept me thinking about it even after I did manage to put it down, pondering all its various hints and mysteries. It’s filled with so many questions about who can be trusted and various characters’ agendas, the truth of both the Black Tower’s magic and Ryx’s own, and so much more. There are political and personal tensions, and the stakes keep increasing with new revelations about the Door and a murderer on the loose—and then Ryx’s situation keeps getting even more difficult and it keeps getting more and more riveting. It’s the most engrossing, fun book I’ve read in some time.

The writing style is denser than that of Swords and Fire, but it has the same sort of compulsively readable, engaging voice interspersed with amusing thoughts and dialogue as the previously published series. Ryx is an extremely sympathetic narrator since most of her family is unkind to her, fearing her unusual magic and what it could mean for their realm. She’s also lived a rather lonely life since she can’t get too close to anyone other than her grandmother or a powerful vivomancer who actively braces themselves against her magic, and the one time she considered courting someone as a teenager, her grandmother opposed the idea and sent the girl she cared for away. Her situation is a bit eerily familiar at this point in time since Ryx has basically been social distancing for her entire life: she’s had to avoid crowds, and if she does meet with others, she has to make sure she keeps some space between herself and them.

In addition to being about (unsuccessfully) trying to keep things at the castle under control, Ryx’s story is about figuring out who can and can’t be trusted and forging new friendships. In the process, she makes some rather large decisions that can almost seem rash, but I thought most of them made sense with the circumstances. (There was one choice she made toward the end that I thought seemed ill-considered, but I’m torn about whether or not that’s fair since I can also understand why she was in a rush to do something and why that would seem like the best option. I feel like she should have at least tried to find out more before making that kind of decision, but then, she was processing a vast amount of life-changing information while dealing with an overwhelming number of stressful incidents so maybe I should cut her some slack…)

There are also some great secondary characters, and it’s entertaining to read Ryx’s interactions with many of them. As already mentioned, I was especially fond of Whisper (talking animals/animal-like beings are usually a plus), and I was also particularly intrigued by Severin, the Shrike Lord’s brother who became his second representative in the peace talks after the death of the first. He’s one of those characters who seems as though he might have some hidden depths and may be able to be trusted…or maybe trusting him would be the biggest mistake one could make.

As much as I enjoyed many of the secondary characters, I did feel like they tended to fit a bit too neatly into certain boxes: the cousin who lived for dramatic entrances and speeches, the fighter who had to be restrained from stabbing people first and asking questions later, the awkward scholar who could endlessly babble on about his area of expertise, and so on. I rather like some of these types, especially the first two, but they didn’t have a lot of dimension and the way Ryx had a conversation about their pasts with each of her new friends seemed a bit formulaic.

But that’s a minor issue, considering how much fun I had with them and the mysteries that kept me reading. There is so much speculation fodder, and though many questions are answered by the end, there’s a lot more related to the bigger picture to explore in later books—the Black Tower and its history, why Ryx has the magic she does, more about Whisper’s origins after an intriguing revelation toward the end, and I would assume, why no one in the family except Ryx’s grandmother knew the truth about the Door. (The latter is nagging at me, but I also suspect there’s a reason she didn’t share the knowledge even if it seems like it would have been important for the Warden of the castle to know and could have saved a lot of trouble.)

It’s also impressive that this mainly takes place in one ancient castle showcasing a variety of previous Witch Lords’ tastes for things like bone decor, yet it still conveys a lot about the secondary fantasy world with people from different parts of the continent gathered together. Like Swords and Fire, it has a society with gender equality and LGBTQ acceptance, and societal inequality in Ryx’s country is mainly related to magical power.

Once again, Melissa Caruso has written a book that I found near impossible to put down. Even though it didn’t grip me immediately, The Obsidian Tower ended up being the most absorbing book I’ve encountered in quite a while. I can think of no better recommendation than that I was able to get lost in its pages at a time when I had been having great difficulty getting into any books—a remarkable feat at any time, but especially in the year 2020!

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Obsidian Tower