Monday, February 24, 2014

Microreview [book]: The Tower Broken, book three of the Knife & Tower trilogy by Mazarkis Williams

Williams, Mazarkis. The Tower Broken. Jo Fletcher Books, 2014. Buy starting June 3rd.

The Meat

Trilogies are kind of strange, when you think about it. They’re especially odd creations in light of the need for authors to wow the audience with the first installment. Ideally, installment two should at the very least sustain readers’ interest, and the final installment should blow their minds. In other words, books (or movies) one and three have to do all of the real work, with book one as the attention-grabber and book three as the stunning conclusion complete with melodrama galore. Comparatively little is asked of book two, in order to allow expectations for book three to rise stratospherically high.

Exceptions to this pattern certainly exist, but I’d argue such exceptions thrive precisely because our expectations for the middle installment are much lower than for the first or last installments. The primacy and recency effects also help ensure the middle installment is the most forgettable, but any time it greatly exceeds our low expectations, the middle installment can capture our imaginations the same way a good underdog story is irresistible to most of us. The Empire Strikes Back just feels sooo much better than either A New Hope or Return of the Jedi, to say nothing of the prequel trilogy (another exception to the trilogy pattern, thanks to all the installments being so uniformly unnecessary and, despite being visually magnificent, such poorly told and conceived stories, though here too some can be heard saying Attack of the Clones is ‘better than I expected’). Of course, part of the greatness of The Empire Strikes Back comes retroactively, comparing quite favorably to its sequel, since Return of the Jedi is far from satisfying in most ways.

This is all by way of saying that expectations for The Tower Broken, final installment in Mazarkis Williams’ Tower & Knife trilogy, were quite high despite the slight disappointment of book two. But if Williams’ book two was no Empire Strikes Back, The Tower Broken definitely manages to surpass the underwhelming bar set by the Return of the Jedi model of trilogy conclusions (apologies to those of you out there who are still laboring under the illusion that Return of the Jedi is a great movie).

"Admiral! We have enemy ships in sector 47!" "It's a trap!" The scintillating dialogue is just one of many reasons to find Return of the Jedi pretty silly...
I must confess I was deeply concerned by the direction Williams seemed to be taking her story, partly due to the childhood trauma of having read the Earthsea Trilogy and been quite taken with Ged, only to read Tehanu and find my hero emptied of all that made him heroic, transformed into an old man, depressingly ordinary. Would Williams drop-kick Sarmin, erstwhile pattern mage, down that same dark and hopeless hole into which Le Guin dropped Ged? Fortunately, the answer is ‘not really.’ True, Sarmin must struggle to face the ever-escalating threats assailing his empire without recourse to his own pattern magic, but Williams uses this power vacuum to explore another aspect of his world, namely elemental magic, and the result is impressive indeed. Moreover, about the Empress there had always been a certain promise of greatness, and Williams chooses this apocalyptic crisis as the moment to let Mesema shine. 

All in all, Williams manages to weave all the disparate elements of his story and his world into a very satisfactory conclusion, an effort worthy of the excellent first book and far surpassing the less impressive second installment. Would this reader have been even happier had Sarmin suddenly recovered his pattern-power and whipped up an intuitive solution to the crisis? Yes…but perhaps that’s just the unhealed wound of Ged’s magical emasculation reopening again.

The Math

Baseline assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for making elemental magic kind of awesome (though it all ends in a T.S. Eliot vein, without much of a bang), +1 for developing characters like Mesema into a position of greatness

Penalties: -1 for pulling a Le Guin-like trick on Sarmin (it’s bad, but not Tehanu-bad!)

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10   Which, as a score here at Nerds of a Feather, is 'a bit of all right', as my Australian friends say!

This review brought to you by Zhaoyun, sf/f book and movie aficionado and main cast member of Nerds of a Feather since early 2013.