The Tower of Living and Dying. Lets start with this: It is not kidding around. It. Is. Not. Kidding. Around.
This is a story which delves into the darkness which sits at the heart of humanity. It explores the way human nature intermingles atrocities and violence with the capacity for love and joy, even in (perhaps especially within) those who might be seen elsewhere as monsters. In fact the existence of monsters feels a little outside the strokes the story is painting in. I’ll see about unpacking that later. For now, know this. There’s outright slaughter here, the obliteration of towns and cities, wrapped aroundan exploration of a corrosive and nihilistic philosophy. There’s scads of political expediency.
There’s some genuinely epic magic, the sort that makes you go back over a page to understand the consequences. There’s a knowledge of and a need to investigate the love of destruction and violence, and the struggle for creation to survive in the face of the destruction of entropy. This is a book which wants to tell you about people – and people are, broadly speaking, pretty messed up. They’re happy to slash and burn and torture and kill, given a cause and a figurehead and permission. They’ll wrap themselves in the cloak of ideals to bring themselves to power on a tower of skulls. And if they don’t, if they won’t, then they’ll be eliminated by those who do.
This is a bleak view. It’s one which deserves a soundtrack filled with a lashing guitar riff and some serious bass, whilst the lights dim and something, let’s not ask what, flies its mammoth carcass over the audience.
This is a story, absolutely. It’s about a rise to power, about a couple deciding who and what they are. It’s about a decaying empire, and the measures necessary to protect and preserve it. It’s about an imagined past, about constructing a truth which justifies your actions. It’s about starting a campaign of world-wide conquest in blood and fire. About bathing in the blood of your enemies and enjoying it. It’s about relationships, and the compromises you’re willing to make to be with the ones you love, and to build a life you can feel is your own. There’s a lot going on here. A world-changing, world-spanning plot, shaking the status quo to its foundations. Some absolutely fantastic characterisation, giving us complicated, broken, confused people, who are simultaneously trying their best and also absolutely awful. And a tapestry behind them, a world shaped by a deeply embedded past, current events wrought in the spilled blood of their ancestors terrible mistakes.
This is a book with a Big Mood, is what I’m saying.
It’s unabashedly complex. There’s a story here, of conquest and betrayal, and that would’ve been enough to keep me turning the pages, that’s a fact. But sliding underneath the lyrical, wine-dark prose, the language which is so smooth and so sharp that it’s in and out like a stiletto, is everything else.
The characters that started shaping the world are still with us. Marith…ah, poor, broken Marith. A young man who always knew what he was capable of, if he allowed it, has now run off the leash. Anchored by his affections, and by necessity, he’s reaching out to protect himself and those close to him. In doing that, he’s also trying to become a king. There’s a sense of escalation here – as every step he takes binds him tighter to a path of conquest. Marith wants to be seen, to be recognised and loved, and feels the need for that love keenly, and often selfishly. That feeling lives on the edge of more complex turmoil – about his relationship with his father, with a stepmother he’s reduced to an archetype of betrayal, about the unreliable narratives of which he’s constructed his life. Marith needs and wants and reaches out and takes – but he’s self-aware enough to recognise the needs which drive home, and which also drive him toward self-destruction. That doesn’t mean he pushes them away. Not always, maybe even not often. There’s a part of Marith which glorifies in destruction, his death-urge sublimated into laying waste to those around him. That part is twisted around the other, which wants to keep those around him safe, wants their love and their need for him to be as great as his for them. Inevitably he’s disappointed, and the undercurrents of emotional betrayal lace their way through his non-delusions of adequacy. Marith is emotionally warped, and struggling to be true, to be himself – or, perhaps, not to be himself. Whatever he is though, it has potential – for wonder, horror, or more typically, wondrous horror. Marith isn’t a nice man, but he’s incredibly emotionally affecting, and a genuinely compelling protagonist.
In his circle of desperate attempts to feel alive, to feel life and love and humanity, and to destroy everything which gives him those feelings before he’s betrayed, he’s ably assisted, if that’s the word, by Thalia. Thalia was the high priestes of a decaying empire once, a woman who made a living of sorts living in a compound, never able to leave, sacrificing men, women and children daily for the glory of her god. Thalia isn’t an especially nice person either. That said, she carries her scars differently than Marith. With more dignity, perhaps. Though her vulnerability is just as clear, seething under the surfaces as she finds herself tied to a man she loves but is often horrified by. Still, she’s nobody’s fool or pet, Thalia. Kindness in the immediate sense she has, but her own past an own her as much as Marith’s – perhaps more so, as she seems to have a firmer idea o what it is.
They’re the power-couple of tyranny. Broken, tortured souls, doing some good and a lot of terrible, terrible things in service to their own goals – and they’re grand goals, to be sure. Rebuilding the past. Living a secure, bountiful live of love and harmony. But somehow they seem to involve rather a lot of blood.
Then there’s our man in Sorlost, the sclerotic squirt of a city which is all that remains of a once-great Empire. The emotional complexity here actually made me gasp more than once; an arranged political marriage and a preference for other men are the undercurrents to a complicated personal life. But that life, the love for more than one person, in different ways, is nuanced, thoughtful, one which is explored with care. It’s laced through a lot of cutting edge politics (and the appearance of knives in Sorlost’s politics means that this isn’t entirely metaphorical). A lot of people end up dead when someone’s trying to make a better world. If Marith’s nihilism does that through violence, through the adrenaline and semi-sexual surges of destruction and mayhem, this quieter death, building alliances and dynasties through reputation-shredding and assassination is a difference of kind, rather than type. The issue here is that despite the best motives in the world, death follows. Is Martih more honest? Perhaps. Does the goal matter more or less than the result? These aren’t quite questions at the forefront of the mind, between death-squads and marauding armies, but they’re questions the text asks, nonetheless. It’s there to say, who are our protagonists. Are they heroes? When things get messy, when things aren’t simple, when you can’t fix what you’ve broken, what happens next? These aren’t heroes, exactly – they’re people trying to do their best in the world around them, and their lives and loves and thoughts and feelings are as vital as that of the reader, in their complexity, in their emphasis on shades of grey, even in their embrace of occasional absolutes.
Reading through, these are complicated, awkward people, and if they’re not people you’d want to spend any time with, they’re still delightfully, appallingly human.
The plot? Look, I’m not going to spoil that for you. But there’s a lot going on in between the pages. Armies on the march. Ancient magics revealed. Some charmingly byzantine political maoeuvering. Crosses. Double crosses. Triple-crosses. Basically all the betrayal you can swallow, really. I’m surprised anyone shakes hands in this book without checking to make sure they get more than a stump back. There’s life and love out there too, and exploring of different lands, some damned and broken, others less so. This is the book that throws open the horror and wonder that encapsulated the world, and shows what’s out there to explore. Admittedly, that exploration is often done at the point of a blade. This book is a long, complicated refrain filled with power chords. It wants you to feel, feel the intensity, feel the love, feel the death, feel the anger. It wants to talk about the eroticism of male violence, the way it’s subsumed into a society which ties up killing with release and a social death wish. It wants to talk about life, and the way stability and arrogance lead to calcification, and that breaking out of that sort of stasis may or may not end up being a good thing. It explores systems and the way they work, but it does so through the agency of its characters – thoughtful, appalling people who live and laugh and love and occasionally find joy in torture and massacre.
In the end, this is a breath-taking. It has amazing scope, and sets out to explore that narrative space with the reader in an intelligent, thoughtful and uncompromising way. It does that, lets you get udner the skin of people and society, and ask some large, interesting questions – and also tells an absolutely storming story, filled with magic, mayhem, conquest, politics and romance.
It’s great, is what I’m saying. If you’re wondering if this is the sequel you wanted after The Court of Broken Knives…yes, yes it is. Should you read it? Yes, yes you should.