Friday, June 23, 2023

Review: The Ivory Tomb by Melissa Caruso

Melissa Caruso finishes the Rooks and Ruin trilogy, as Ryx and her friends must deal with the return of all the demons of legend and myth to the world.

It’s not been a good time for Ryx. After the revelations of the second book in the series (the main one I will discuss anon), The Quicksilver Court, and the disastrous events, she and the rest of the magical-problem solving Rookery are on the backfoot. All the demons are on the loose, both the Vaskandrans and Serene Empire seem to be ready to pummel each other. But the Rookery is still in the fight, hoping to get new and old friends together to oppose the world-spanning threat.

This is the story of The Ivory Tomb, the third and final volume in Caruso’s Rooks and Ruin series, her second series set in her world of Vaskandar and the Serene Empire.

Caruso, if you follow her on social media, is a meticulous crafter of stories, character arcs and plotting. She puts a lot of thought into how stories, why they work and how to tie characters into their stories and provide satisfactory resolutions for arcs for both the main arc and the characters themselves.

All of this has been on display in her second series, and here, in the third and last volume of the series. The Ivory Tomb. Caruso is not a worldbuilder in the sense of, say, Marshall Ryan Maresca, who has a meticulous knack for worldbuilding to the ninth degree. Caruso’s strengths are somewhat different, having a strong sense of organization of character development, growth, reversals and the like. There is a satisfaction to feeling the story out of characters, their beats (even the surprises) feel right when they hit, and frequently, she’s left breadcrumbs for the big reveal, and then works the changes on that reveal.

The entirety of The Ivory Tomb is the consequences of a major character reveal in the second novel. We already knew by the end of the first novel that there was something really strange about Ryx, her dangerous touch, her propensity for chaos to happen whenever she was around. The story was always that she was “broken” with her magic, perhaps as part of a nearly deadly sickness when she was young. That’s the story the reader got, that’s the story that Ryx herself believed.

The revelation in The Quicksilver Court, however, is that this is not the case. In point of fact, the reason why Ryx’s magic is so warped and dangerous, why she can’t touch people who aren’t magically protected, the reason why she has been physically and in a real sense emotionally cut off from people for so long is that it turns out that, when she nearly died of that illness when she was very young, her Grandmother violated the Gloaming Lore, opened the gate and made a bargain with a demon to inhabit Ryx (just as one inhabits her, now, as well as Hunger inhabiting her former friend). The demon that Ryx found out she “really is” is the demon of Disaster.

Throughout The Ivory Tomb, Caruso bends her powers to not only tell the story of how the Rookery is dealing with all the other demons running amok, but how Ryx herself comes to terms with who and what SHE really is. It is no surprise that this knowledge has devastated Ryx and her coming to terms with her nature might be enough for most authors. Caruso takes it further, however. Now that she knows who and what she is, Ryx attempts to discover something of her, Disaster’s past, the previous time Demons were amok in the world. Ostensibly, this is to try and find a way, a weakness, an in to deal with the Demons and there is an element of that. But in the recalling into the past, we get character development and growth from Ryx, as she learns who and what Disaster was. Sure, we learn some truths about the earlier age of the world, but it is how Ryx feels and what she does with that inside that is the real meat and potatoes of her delving into the past. This is the sort of writing that the author excels at, and she makes good use of it, and it does all tie into the overarching, main plot.
The plot of the novel is a little meandering, though for all of that. The first novel of the series was mostly very tied to Gloamingard and the titular Obsidian Tower itself. The second novel, The Quicksilver Court, was mostly set in a nation between the two empires, a hotbed of intrigue, espionage and adventure. This third novel, by comparison, is a bit all over the map as Ryx and the Rookery are literally chasing after demons all across both sides of the border between the empire. There is a bit unmooring of place in this novel compared to the other two. While the Rookery does spend some time in its “home base” among other locations, there is no one central feature that Ryx and the team really have as the narrative geographic center of the novel and I think the novel suffers slightly for it.
With Ryx learning about her powers and abilities, there is definitely a “upscaling” of the effects in the novel. There is the threat, the possibility of utter catastrophe, as we find out that Disaster is not only capable of it, but in the past has actually done it. In a way, Ryx is like a superheroine with a barely controlled power that really could wreck a sizeable chunk of a country if she let it get too out of control. This novel explores that, and explores the idea that escalation is not only not the right answer sometimes, sometimes it's’ the worst thing one can do.

More satisfactory still is the plotting and the resolution to the issue of demons in the world. I would not have expected Caruso to have a magic wand to fix things status quo ante, and it is made clear that with people like her Grandmother possessed by Discord, and herself Disaster, that status quo ante is, in effect, impossible. So, the resolution to the problem of the Demons plaguing the world again, in the end, turns out to be messy and complicated. It’s not a complete victory, the world has changed and remains changed. It’s in a way refreshing from a lot of fantasy where things return to the way they once were and it seems like the world can go on as it was. Ryx, the Rookery and everyone else who survives the end of the novel are changed, and the world they will move into going forward will be definitely different.
If Caruso intends to write more novels in this universe, and in the future, the new state of affairs is an exciting and interesting one, and I look forward to what the future of Vaskandar and the Serene Empire will be, and the new characters Caruso will create to inhabit that future. And yes, a case could definitely be made at this point that these novels might be worthy of a Hugo Best Series nomination.


The Math

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Caruso, Melissa, The Ivory Tomb, [Orbit, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.