Book Review: Tower Lord
By Anthony Ryan
Ace Book, 2014
Anthony Ryan’s debut high fantasy novel Blood Song was received by the genre community with raptures most first-time authors only dream about, nearly universally hailed as a masterpiece heralding the arrival of a major new voice in fantasy (presumably a source of great satisfaction to the author, who’d originally self-published the book and then watched it not only get picked up by Penguin but go on to great success). It told the story of Vaelin Al Sorna, who’s given to the Sixth Order of the Faith (a warrior order) in the Unified Realm and rises through instinct and training to become the greatest tactician and fighter in Ryan’s carefully-imagined world.
The story of Vaelin’s rise to power, his relationship with King Janus and half a dozen other characters fighting and striving and loving and dying in the religion-racked fantasy reality Ryan has devised, is told to the reader in part by an intelligent, supercilious chronicler, Lord Verniers Alishe Someren, one of a whole range of vivid narrators who bring the book to life.
Blood Song climaxes in a storm of sudden violence, and the next book in the series, Tower Lord (with its simple, evocative cover by the great Cliff Nielsen), starts by picking up the pieces of that cataclysm. The surviving characters from the first book have been shattered and scattered; Vaelin’s confidence has been subsumed in remorse, neophyte fighter Reva has become an adept killer, other characters have coarsened in the wake of the death of their dreams, and Lord Verniers has become a slave of the brutal victors:
Fight? When it became obvious the tide of battle had turned I flogged my horse bloody to escape to the rear, except there was no rear, the Volarians were everywhere, killing everyone. I found a convenient pile of bodies to hide in, emerging in darkness to immediate capture by the slave hunters. They were an efficient lot, keen to assess the value of every captive and my worth had become apparent after the first beating had extracted my real name.
But although it continues the story of Blood Song, Tower Lord is a very much more complex and ambitious book, in many ways representing a radical departure from its predecessor (radical enough, certainly, to irk that book’s legion of fans). The only real commonality between the two volumes is a happy one: Ryan’s storytelling skill. His characters are all sharply etched, his frequent set-pieces are very pleasingly panoramic, and his dexterity with action sequences is even greater in this book than in the last, ranging from sweeping battles to short, quick, intimate confrontations, as when Reva disables a would-be robber:
Her fist caught him under the nose, fore-knuckles extended, a precise blow to a spot, which would cause the most pain and confusion. His head snapped back, a small explosion of blood coming from his nose and mashed upper lip. Her knife came free from the hidden sheath at the small of her back as he staggered, but the killing blow wasn’t necessary. The fat boy ran his tongue over his ruined lip, incomprehension lighting his eyes, then collapsed to the alley floor.
Tower Lord is a testingly rewarding big book, as challenging on meditations of religion and zealotry as it is on explorations of bitterness and fulfillment. Readers of the smarter ongoing epic fantasies by writers like Patrick Rothfuss and Steve Erikson shouldn’t be missing this series or this author.