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Still a good piece of herois fantasy
on 20 July 2014
It is always difficult to write the second volume of a trilogy. Some might say that it is more difficult that writing the first or the third title. This is because a sense of "déjà vu" can creep in quite easily, while the author had also to refrain from "telling too much" and packing in too much action and events since he needs to ensure that volume three comes out as a fitting climax. The author has not quite managed to avoid these two effects. Both this sense of "déjà vu" and this impression that the book is a bit of a filler are present at times in "Tower Lord", and this is perhaps the reason why a number of reviewers - me included - may have been a bit less enthusiastic than with the first volume.
The story picks up where it was left, straight after the end of the first volume, so it is rather recommended to start with this one rather than reading "Tower Lord" first. As others have mentioned, some inspiration has been drawn from Game of Thrones, although not too much and Anthony Ryan is not the only one to have done this.
Besides, the alternative world in which this story is set is sufficiently different and original to be attractive in its own right. The Unified Realms made me think of an enlarged medieval Ireland, including religious and military orders and raked by heresy. It has been conquered long ago by a race that came from overseas. Descendants of the original populations, including one that looks like Red Indians and another made up of fearless riders and horse archers, still inhabit some of its forests and the north of the continent. The Alpirian Empire was a kind of Byzantine Empire. The Volarian Empire puzzled me a bit and seems to be inspired by Carthage and by various Muslim states of the Middle Ages that essentially relied on slave soldiers (such as Ghulams and Mamluks).
Then there is the magic and the fantasy bits. There are many of these and there are never completely explained. One are the "Gifts" - or the afflictions depending upon your point of view - that a number of people have, including Vaelin Al Sorna, the book's main hero. There come in various forms although I will not elaborate any further to avoid spoilers. Suffice is to say that the origin of their powers is unknown and using them comes at a heavy price. There are also some people in this world which are somewhat immortal, or rather they seem to benefit from extended lives by occupying the bodies of others and they seem to have been able to achieve this with the help of a mysterious and malevolent "Ally" whose designs and objectives are clearly evil but largely mysterious.
The set of characters are mostly well drawn, even if perhaps not entirely original. Vaelin Al Sorna is his usual self (for those who have read the first volume) and a peerless warrior and general (for those that have not). You therefore know from almost the very beginning of the book that he is going to save the sum of things, so that there is little suspense on this front. As another review mentioned, the character of Lyrna is rather interesting even if the theme of developing her leadership skills through personal suffering is not exactly original. Vernier, the Court Historian, is still as excellent and he also becomes someone different and more than just the obsequious, snobbish and cowardly courtier. There are also many other characters that I will not mention here and let you discover, including some that you have already met in the first volume such as Vaelin's former Brothers.
Then there is the plot which is quite good and which is centred on a rather horrific invasion of the Unified Realms. Some of the scenes, such as the attack on the Royal family in Varinshold, are simply horrific and the siege of Alltor is also rather good and well told. The wave of murders across continents that is intended to prepare for the master plan that leads to world domination are at times a bit far-fetched, but the concept lying behind him - eliminating all alternative futures that could compromise the success of the enterprise - is rather interesting even if not entirely original.
There is still plenty to write about this book but by now you get the main idea: although it may not be quite as good as the first volume, it is still a rather glorious piece of epic fantasy. I found it very entertaining, and well worth reading. Four stars after some hesitations.