Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan


This is a book I had been anticipating for a while now, or, more specifically, ever since I turned the last page of Anthony Ryan’s debut novel, Blood Song. When it finally came out, I was beyond thrilled… until I read the reviews. Despite the fact the reaction was mostly positive, it also didn’t make the book out to be anything to get excited about – good, but a little disappointing. So I held off on purchasing it, thinking that it would make more sense to let the price drop a little before finally grabbing a copy. But my resolve broke, and I downloaded it onto my kindle before a week-long vacation, thinking I would have plenty of time to read. I was right and I was right.

I tore through this book at a rate that surprised even me. Yes, it’s a very different book from Blood Song. And though I would also say that it’s not as good, it’s certainly an excellent book in its own way. Blood Song benefitted from the emphasis placed on Vaelin, the reader’s ability to live with him through everything, the drive and spot-on pacing of the plot, and the relatively small-scale of the story (at least in terms of characters), keeping the story intense and focused. Tower Lord has none of these virtues. Instead, this book takes place from the POV of four separate characters, introduces a far greater scope to the world, and in many places feels a bit drawn out. But the main advantage this book has over Blood Song is the improved craft of Ryan’s writing. There’s a far greater maturity and cleanness present than there was in Blood Song… which may contribute somewhat to the general change in tone between books.

Anthony Ryan has some of the most interesting prose I can remember reading. And this is because it’s beautiful, but not in any way I can clearly discern. I’m fond of using the word ‘functional’ to describe prose that does well to carry the plot, but little else. And it feels like that, but there’s an extra element to it. A sort of poetic feel, an elegance of phrase. It’s not flowery or bombastic, as can be the case with other books I’ve loved (all three of The Name of the Wind, The Night Circus, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated… spring to mind), but simple, and refined. It’s a pleasure to read, as it pulls you along and keeps you intrigued, while still not distracting and certainly not detracting from the martial themes of the novel.

One of Ryan’s most controversial choices even before this novel was released was the switch from the focused, distilled, single viewpoint of Vaelin al Sorna to a series of four rotating perspectives. In addition to Vaelin, we have two returning characters from Blood Song – Lyrna and Frentis – and one new one – Reva. For the most part, I was very pleased with the way this turned out, and am certainly glad that Ryan chose not to tell this story from solely Vaelin’s POV. If this is the story he had in his head, and it makes sense as the logical continuation to Blood Song, it would have been a disaster should it have been written solely from the one perspective. Though I was initially worried about Reva (her early chapters are not compelling), I thought that she blossomed brilliantly into perhaps my favorite character. Lyrna’s story takes some very interesting and surprising turns, and though I’m still undecided about her as a character, she is still without a doubt a dynamic and thrilling point of view. Frentis is notable primarily for the uneven nature of his story, but it is worth noting that the way he acts for approximately the first half of the book is not at all how you would expect him to act (and yes, there’s a reason for this). And as for Vaelin, well, Vaelin is just as wonderful a character, but…

His plotline was really poor. Don’t get me wrong, Ryan does a good job wringing out every bit of cleverness and entertainment he can out of it, but at the end of the day, it just does not work. His actions pretty much include: Go north. Go south. Swing sword for two pages. Done! This seems a real shame, because Vaelin is such a multi-faceted and interesting character, but he really does very little throughout the entire story. In contrast with this is Reva, whose story is often the driving force behind the story – it is her location that provides the primary battleground for the entre novel. After her first couple chapters, I would argue that this plotline is the most consistently entertaining and compelling. Lyrna and Frentis’ stories exist somewhere in the middle: more inconsistent plots that range from thrilling to mundane. Frentis’ story in particular is guilty of this, while Lyrna’s hovers more constantly around the ‘fun’ mark, rarely rising any further.

The strange thing is that though all these plot lines have their own distinct issues, they actually work exceedingly well with each other. The rotation works well in this case, and I realized that there were few, if any cases, when I was disappointed with the POV coming up next. The pacing is not as fine-tuned as it was in Blood Song, but still more than good enough to keep me turning pages, even when I really should have been doing other things.

Despite the immense entertainment I got from this book, there are certainly numerous flaws to be discussed. I’ve mentioned the failures of some of the plotlines to provide reliable entertainment, and I also think some of the secondary characters are highly hit-and-miss. Dahrena provides a notable hit, while I found Iltis to be a clear miss, but I can see others disagreeing with me. As for the return of the brothers, I found Nortah to still be an excellent character, while I profoundly disliked the new Caenis – disappointing, as he was one of my favorite characters from Blood Song. I also think that Ryan was a bit too impressed with the world he had created. Though it surprised me with its depth and the level of detail Ryan had ingrained in it, I also thought that certain sections (especially some of Frentis’ earlier ones) felt very much like Ryan trying to show off his newfound skills. Another, rather strange complaint that I had was the sheer number of typos and other typographical errors found in the text. Describing a man as lying “prostate” (instead of prostrate) particularly sticks in my mind, as does the failure to use commas correctly. There were so many instances when the rules of grammar (or even just common sense) dictate that there should be a comma, and yet there was none. This grew to be more than a slight annoyance after a little while, but it was a small complaint in an otherwise excellent tale.
But nothing can compare with the absolute devastation I felt after reading the final scene. Not the last chapter, not the last section. The final scene… all four paragraphs of it. It was clumsy, poorly-written, unclear, confusing, and, worst of all, wholly unnecessary. It ultimately left me with an incredibly sour taste in my mouth concerning this book, despite the immense enjoyment and pleasure I derived from reading it.

Overall, this is a very strong book. Very different from Blood Song, and perhaps not as good, but it does an excellent job of continuing the story of the Unified Realm, as well as expanding the scope and breadth of the novel. But perhaps most encouragingly, it truly shows how quickly Ryan has refined and improved his writing since his last publication. And if that’s not something to celebrate, then I don’t know what is.

Final rating: 8/10