Watchtower

by Elizabeth A. Lynn

Cover image

Series: Chronicles of Tornor #1
Publisher: Berkley
Copyright: February 1979
Printing: November 1982
ISBN: 0-425-06195-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 226

Buy at Powell's Books

Ryke is a soldier in service to Athor, lord of Tornor Keep. Or, at least, he was. Shortly before the opening lines of this book, Tornor Keep was taken by a southerner named Col Istor, and Athor was killed. Ryke is about to change sides under duress: his service to Col as a watch commander is the price of keeping Errel, Athor's son, alive. Alive does not mean treated with dignity, however; Errel's new place is to become court jester for Col's small domain.

At the start of this book, I had no idea who Col Istor was or why he'd want to take over one of the border keeps that guard the country of Arun against its northern neighbor Anhard. At the end of this book, I still had little idea. Watchtower's relationship with world-building is not what you'd normally expect from a fantasy novel.

There are only a few locations in this novel, and they're described in close detail but without much historical or strategic context. The narrative, despite being third person, follows Ryke very closely, and Ryke is not interested in thinking much about the history of his world that he knows and the reader doesn't. Or he may not care. Ryke does not come across as a curious or thoughtful person. He's a soldier, he lives to serve his lord, and that service transfers from Athor to Errel and simply stays there, with little discussion or argument.

The opening section of this novel shows Ryke trying to take care of Errel while serving Col and listening to his plans to take over the rest of the northern keeps. I found it slow, claustrophobic, and not very interesting. It reads a bit like a day in the life in some grim medieval military, with little world-building or context. Watchtower is technically fantasy, but mostly because the geography and politics are imaginary. Magic is limited to a very tiny bit of (essentially) Tarot card reading and has little impact on the plot.

The story does get somewhat more interesting when two green clan messengers enter the story, and Ryke and Errel escape. Lynn introduces another community and another way of life into the story than the one Ryke is used to, one that seemed modeled after monastic orders (but with the religion toned down to nearly nonexistent). I think the intended conflict of the story is between those ways of life, their draws and implications, but even that conflict is never clearly stated. Ryke seems to move from one inevitability to another, and while he does question some of his previous views and seems to open his mind a bit, actual growth is limited in this story. I reached the end of the book feeling the world was largely unchanged from its start.

This story won the World Fantasy award for best novel in 1980. I have to admit I'm baffled, although partly that's because this is not really my thing. I prefer my fantasy to have more epic sweep and a lot more world-building. But perhaps the award was for the writing, which is evocative and fills the moments of the story with closely-observed detail. It has a distinctive, choppy feel, full of short declarative sentences:

The wind blew. Like some night creature caught in a trap, Col Istor's banner flapped on its pole. Ryke wondered where his wolfhound was. Sheltering, he hoped, in some warm and windless corner. He thrust his hands beneath his armpits to warm them. He entered the kitchen, nodding at the guard who stood there, and went toward the scullery. The kitchenboys huddled together in sleep like dogs in front of the oven. He stepped over their legs. The iron pots on the walls vibrated softly.

That's a paragraph chosen at random from the start of the book and should give you a good feel for the style.

I think I would have liked this novel better if it had followed anyone other than Ryke. Not only did I not care for him and his simplistic loyalties, he's the least interesting character in this story. Everyone else — Col, Errel, Sorren, Van, and others — is more complex and more thoughtful than he is, and I think many of them would have made a better protagonist. He spends much of the center part of the book being suspicious and closed and incurious, which means the reader can only guess at what's going on between the other characters.

I can't really recommend this book, but the writing is solid and it has some interesting properties for late 1970s fantasy, including both a frank look at the role of women in this society and same-sex relationships. If your taste in fantasy leans towards the gritty and realistic, you might like it more than I did. I may try the later books of the series in the hope that they have more interesting protagonists.

Followed by Dancers of Arun.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-10-22

Last modified and spun 2015-10-23