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The Obsidian Tower coverThe Obsidian Tower returns readers to the world of magical intrigue that Melissa Caruso first created for The Tethered Mage, her debut novel which was nominated for a Gemmell Morningstar Award in 2018. Centred on the Serene Empire’s capital of Raverra, a grand city of canals and masquerades that unmistakeably evokes Renaissance Venice, The Tethered Mage and its sequels in the Swords and Fire trilogy followed heiress, and magical scholar Lady Amalia Cornaro as she tried to reform the Empire’s system for controlling magic and its users while staving off war with Vaskandar, the wild magical kingdom to the Empire’s north.

Caruso describes both Swords and Fire and the new trilogy that opens with The Obsidian Tower, Rooks and Ruin, as packed with “fancy parties, morally ambiguous people in great outfits, murder, mystery, and dangerous magic.” In Swords and Fire, our entry into that world came through the eyes of Amalia Cornaro, heir to one of Raverra’s most powerful merchant houses, and a student of magical theory under pressure from her mother the Contessa to take up her responsibilities as the eventual successor to her family’s seat on the doge’s Council of Nine.

Those born with the ability to use magic in this world are identifiable by coloured rings around their eyes (known as the “mage-mark”) and manifest magic in one of four ways: as alchemists, who infuse potions with power; artificers, who do the same to constructed objects; vivomancers, with power over plant or animal life; or warlocks, whose command over natural forces allows them to unleash devastating and uncontrollable fires or storms. In most of the known world, the ”mage-marked”  were either persecuted to extinction (Loreice, a land now part of the Empire, burned them at the stake) or rose into an unstoppable elite (in Vaskandar, now governed by the ever-warring and near-immortal Witch Lords). Raverra’s development of an artefact called the ”jess,” which enabled one person to block or release another’s magic, gave the merchant republic the ability to contain and harness magic in the service of the state, a technological advantage which has enabled it to become the imperial sovereign of practically the whole continent of Eruvia, its writ running everywhere apart from in the Witch Lords’ domains.

Raverra’s system for controlling magic requires all mage-marked within the Empire’s borders, known as Falcons, to wear a jess and be linked to one of the Empire’s Falconers, a branch of the military; by imperial law they and their Falconers must serve at the Mews, an ostensibly benevolent but fundamentally unfree institution where it is understood Falcons will serve the Empire in peace and war. Amalia unexpectedly—and, for the balance between different centres of power in Raverra, awkwardly—becomes part of this system firsthand when she finds herself in the middle of a fight between a fugitive fire warlock called Zaira and the Falconer who had been sent to capture her: as the only person able to put the jess on Zaira, Amalia has to act as her Falconer, leaving her in control of a mage who has suddenly become one of the Empire’s most powerful weapons in the conflict with Vaskandar.

Zaira, the rebellious “tethered mage” of the first volume’s title, and Marcello, the lieutenant sent to capture her, are the characters through whom Amalia comes to question some of her assumptions about the Empire’s power—though never beyond the safe bounds of liberal reform—and eventually to campaign against the conscription of the mage-marked, turning the Falcons into a voluntary service. This political arc weaves in and out of Amalia’s increasing involvement with the Empire’s diplomatic and military strategies: as the Empire’s most eligible heiress she can expect to have to make a diplomatic marriage, while the need for her to accompany Zaira whenever the Empire might need to deploy—or even just show off—its fire-warlock puts her in the thick of the most dangerous operations against Vaskandar. Amalia’s plotline is one of coming to terms with what it means to be a ruler, including how the state must use its people as resources to project its power. While her aspiration as a future Councillor is “to win the day with words, that it need not be won with swords and fire,” she must also become someone capable of ordering the latter’s use as well. [1]

The limits of how humans and their bodies can legitimately be used for others’ ends were, in that regard, a preoccupation throughout Swords and Fire. Zaira, her eventual lover Terika (an alchemist who spent her childhood enslaved by human traffickers, who forced her to make one of the Empire’s deadliest poisons, Demon’s Tears), and other Falcons—who get the choice whether or not to return to the Mews after being rescued from Vaskandar—provide (gentle) criticisms of how the Empire constrains mages’ freedom. The powers of the trilogy’s arch-antagonist Ruven, a Witch Lord whose vivomancy interacts with his amoral personality to give him direct power over human flesh and bone, unambiguously cross the boundary into evil, emphasising his danger as an enemy who must be stopped at any cost; a sympathetic character wrestles with the thought he has become a monster after Ruven’s treatment of him in The Unbound Empire, and Amalia must reaffirm his humanity. The imbalance of power in Amalia and Zaira’s friendship—founded in economic wealth, social class, and laws backed by state force—would not be so quickly overcome in stories that critique empire and its violence more centrally: Amalia indeed declares “I am the Empire” when facing down Ruven near the end of The Tethered Mage, and the narrative places us on her side. Yet at least the imbalance is voiced—and is flipped on its head when Amalia and Zaira find themselves in Vaskandar, where a mage as powerful as Zaira commands deference from the unmagical for fear of what they might do in dismay.

The Obsidian Tower, set in a part of Vaskandar unseen in Swords and Fire and taking place 150 years after its events, builds up the theological and supernatural dimensions of Caruso’s world and does so with a protagonist who, unlike Amalia, has a much more marginal relationship towards her domain’s institutions of power. Vaskandar allows Caruso to create characters and locations in a deeper mode of the fantastic altogether. While The Tethered Mage left it to Ruven to embody Vaskandar and to embody it as dread, The Defiant Heir re-created it as a much more diverse and not necessarily inimical land, from the moment at a Raverran party when Amalia meets Kathe the Crow Lord—a Jareth-like figure all feathered cloaks, leather tunics, and black-tipped white hair. Here there are Vaskandran lords who can be both negotiated with and loved (and indeed the futures Amalia would carve out by loving Kathe or loving Marcello create an unusually compelling triangle, and the possibilities for how the story’s very themes will be resolved turn on her choice). The sudden appearance of a rival Witch Lord, the Lady of Thorns, at a royal reception for Amalia and Kathe in the kingdom of Callamorne— where she destroys the throne room with a thrashing mass of enchanted briars and threatens to claim the borderland as her domain early in The Defiant Heir—broke the bounds of The Tethered Mage’s merchant-republic-intrigue storyworld and opened it into a richer and vaster well of sorcery, where the symbiotic relationship between each Lord and their lands created more distinct and mythic domains than any of Raverra’s polities. [2]

In The Obsidian Tower, then, Ryxander—or Ryx—is granddaughter of the Lady of Owls, Witch Lord of Morgrain, and someone who ought to be impossible in Vaskandar: a noble who is effectively without magic. A mysterious, twisted taint in her vivomancy causes fatal blight to anything or anyone Ryx touches and so—after tragically learning the effects of her magic in childhood—she has resigned herself to a life of gloved hands and keeping apart from others. Unlike Amalia, she has a much more marginal relationship towards her domain’s institutions of power. Witch Lords’ heirs are supposed to serve as Wardens over parts of their domains, but Ryx has no magic she could use to protect it; she has therefore been made guardian of the family castle Gloamingard, which successive Witch Lords have added to—with aesthetics drawn from the different aspects of nature they commanded—to create a rambling result not unlike Peake’s Gormenghast. Here, Ryx navigates through forgotten back ways when she can, and keeps to specially marked sides of corridors in the main halls, to stay out of courtiers’ paths. [3] The obsidian tower itself is at the heart of Gloamingard, sealed by a Door that must on no account be opened: it will come as little surprise that it is opened within the first few chapters, with potentially apocalyptic results.

Even by the time of this early catastrophe, disasters have already been mounting up at Gloamingard, the site of approaching talks between the Serene Emperor and Morgrain’s touchy neighbour, the Shrike Lord of Alevar—whose ambitious fiancée has just tried to claim for her own domain an island belonging to the Empire. A spy for a secret group called the Rookery, investigating a dangerous magical artefact that Ryx’s grandmother will not hear discussed, has infiltrated the castle in the guise of a touring player (one with an enticingly roguish smile, as Ryx can’t help noticing before she is unmasked); the Shrike Lord’s fiancée, Lamiel, has turned up to head Alevar’s delegation herself; Lamiel’s attempts to unseal the Door end in a disaster for which the Shrike Lord could seek vengeance on Ryx and the whole of Morgrain; and, in the Lady of Owls’s absence, more members of the dynasty are arriving with designs on Gloamingard, from Ryx’s terrifyingly bearlike aunt Karrigan to her exuberant, giant-weasel-riding cousin Vikal.

The world of Swords and Fire is incidentally queer-affirming (no-one expresses queerphobia, one Falcon/Falconer pair are a male married couple, and a nonbinary marksperson briefly appears in the third volume as a member of Kathe’s Heartguard; likewise, the non-binary heir of the Fox Lord has a larger role in The Obsidian Tower, and the problem when Zaira shows interest in another woman at her first noble reception isn’t that person’s gender, it’s that she is the doge’s niece); Ryx, however, reads as an inherently queer character, excluded from the ability to conform to conventional family structures, and marginal in another way that Amalia is not. Same-gender desire in Swords and Fire appears to be fully integrated into kinship and state structures, although the narrative never questions what would happen if an heiress like Amalia, expected to marry for advantage, turned out to be queer. Unlike Amalia, Ryx has no set role in society at all:

Everyone in a Witch Lord’s family had a place and a role, based on how much magic they had—everyone except me, who had magic but couldn’t use it. And since I wouldn’t fit in to the hierarchies of Vaskandran society, it was easier to ignore me altogether.

As well as being queer in the sense that she is attracted both to the Rookery spy Kessa and the troubled envoy Severin (the Shrike Lord’s brother, who comes to demand satisfaction in a mission that it is increasingly clear has been forced on him), Ryx knows what it is to cause fear and disappointment because you were born “wrong.” Aged fifteen, Ryx fell in love with her visiting friend Rillim, whose mage-mark gave her some protection from Ryx’s touch; when Ryx told her grandmother she might want to ask to court Rillim, her grandmother sent Rillim home—because Ryx being that close to someone involved ”too much at risk”—and Ryx never saw her again. In this world without queerphobia, then, it is Ryx’s blighted magic that made her dangerous, rather than the queerness of the attraction itself; but the feeling of understanding that you, too, have something “wrong” with you—something that means you ought to stay away from anywhere where you might get too close to another—may echo with queer experience for readers who have been made to feel that way, too. Raverran jesses, artefacts of unfreedom in Swords and Fire, turn out to offer Ryx quite the reverse: while wearing a jess controlled by her childhood Raverran friend Aurelio (whom Ryx implicitly trusts, rightly or not), Ryx can suddenly touch people, animals, and plant life without fear:

I wanted to touch everything. […] Each time I had to overcome an instinctive fear that set my pulse to pounding painfully hard and fast; but everything remained quick with life beneath my touch, vibrant, healthy, alive.

At least for some queer readers, there might be more than a hint here of those first few tentative occasions of knowing you had permission to be queer.

The Obsidian Tower is a slower-paced story than those of Swords and Fire, partly because most of it takes place in and around Gloamingard (Caruso has said that this was a deliberate choice in order to spend less time on crafting transitions and more on honing character—and the greater complexity of Ryx in particular shows where the work has gone). Occasionally, there are glimpses of how the events of Swords and Fire shaped the world that The Obsidian Tower’s characters know: the Rookery, a covert organisation supported by both the Empire and Vaskandar, must owe much to the joint aspirations of Amalia and Kathe, and the magical glasses that Marcello’s genius artificer sister Istrella built for herself to scry out different forms of magic are now a rare type of artefact themselves. A group called the Zenith Society, dedicated to advancing magical knowledge in the Empire without regard to ethics, has started radicalising ambitious and scholarly young men.

One wholly new part of the worldbuilding is that creatures, or at least one creature, can talk: the cat-like Whisper, thought to be a chimera created by some long-forgotten Witch Lord of Morgrain, pads around Gloamingard, curls up on Ryx’s bed (when he deigns to do so), and can sometimes be cajoled into revealing pieces of ancient lore. Whisper seems to know more than any other living creature about the demons who plunged the earth into chaos centuries ago, when three of them escaped from the Nine Hells (a time now known as the Dark Days); but Ryx’s own grandmother has been even quicker than Ryx to learn the secrets, with catastrophic consequences after the Door is opened and the Demon of Discord threatens to run loose in the world. The Rookery’s team of misfits, ”all broken … and ultimately stronger for it” in the same way Ryx becomes, have the knowledge and camaraderie to stave off disaster: in a trilogy called Rooks and Ruin, we can expect them to be even more significant in books two and three.

Throughout, Vaskandar continues to offer an even more fantastical setting than the Empire, since the link between magic, ruler, and territory Caruso has created for it means the atmosphere of every castle, as shaped by each ruler’s particular manipulations of nature, reveal how each ruler’s vivomancy expresses itself and what their personality has made them want to do with it: the hall of the oppressive Shrike Lord, for instance, is a grey stone vault with black beams converging on ”an austere black throne," with black briars twisting across the walls and weaving through pieces of human bone. One glimpse of an imperial castle from Ryx’s viewpoint near the end shows us the Empire from outside for the first time, where its architecture comes across as ”crisp and sensible and orderly, rather than sprawling with chaotic, mismatched layers of history”; it is those chaotic, mismatched layers of history which, in Vaskandar unlike in the Empire, multiply the stories and images that can be told.


[1] Though why are these dramas of rule so often the stories we choose the fantasy form to tell? [return]

[2] The Defiant Heir’s next 150-odd pages as Amalia and Zaira discover a poisoned village, are betrayed in a vicious ambush, flee across the border into Vaskandar, and traverse first one then another Witch Lord’s domain to pursue the kidnapped Terika, tighten the plot’s screws on almost every page: the wisdom on plotting and pacing SFF that Caruso frequently brings to Twitter is in action here, and as much as Caruso believes she struggles with physical transitions, here they carry the characters seamlessly towards the worst that Ruven and his father have in store. [return]

[3] Ryx’s everyday environment is in this way strangely closer to how many readers must now move around public buildings than anyone could have realised when The Obsidian Tower went to press. [return]

Catherine Baker was born in London and lives in Hull, UK. She writes, in various combinations, about books, pop culture, history, feminism, queerness, mythology, and magic. She tweets at @richmondbridge and blogs at
Current Issue
29 May 2023

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