“The Tower of Living and Dying” is the sequel to “The Court of Broken Knives” and the second book in the Empires of Dust trilogy.
We pick up the story where we left off – with Marith having just overthrown and killed his father. Our main narrators continue to be Marith, Thalia, Tobias and Orhan, although Smith-Spark throws in a few extra POV characters along the way so the reader can understand the breadth of the devastation and despair of her imaginary world.
Malth Salene has fallen. Marith has crowned himself king and Thalia queen, and the book charts his progress to conquer bigger and bigger cities until he comes to the ultimate challenge of the ruins of Ethalden in Illyr, a kingdom that has vanquished all of his forebears. Orhan remains in Sorlost, trying to juggle staying alive with creating a better way of life; it’s a balancing act that grows increasingly impossible. Tobias skulks in the shadows of Marith’s army, also learning that survival and success don’t necessarily go hand in hand. His new sisters-in-arms are the mysterious Raeta, and Landra Relast, the only survivor from Malth Selene.
As Marith’s campaign takes him ranging across the empire, each place is exquisitely described, becoming distinctive in the reader’s mind so that you’re never confused as to where the action is taking place. Yet everything described has an unhealthy sheen to it: even the bright new buds of spring are sticky and foul the army’s clothes; even in the shining city of Sorlost itself, beneath the scent of cinnamon, jasmine and mint there is a “hot, sweaty stink… reeking of life and the glories of human flesh.”
In my review of the previous book, I stated my hope that Thalia was a character that would be further explored in the next book, and Smith-Spark has not disappointed. Thalia had virtually no agency in the original book, and while she might appear to be one of the most passive characters in this book, you reach the end of the novel wondering whether she might, in fact, be ruling the whole show without anyone realising it. Her outsider’s perspective as she follows Marith on his campaign not only gives us greater insight into this world, but also indications of how Marith came to be as he is. Thalia might not directly affect the action in many scenes, but her observations and her reactions to the situations she encounters leave the most lasting impressions in the book.
I enjoyed this book a lot more than the first one because all the main characters here had more agency than previously. “The Court of Broken Knives” was about everyone being at the bottom of the pile and fighting their way to the top; “The Tower of Living and Dying” focusses on how they crest along on a wave of bloodshed, each so precariously balanced that at any moment they might be sucked down into the deep. The reader is constantly on edge not as to whether the characters will survive, but whether they will come out the other side of their trials unbroken and still retaining the core of themselves. Gods and mythical creatures also make more significant appearances in this book, adding an element of pure fantasy that was lacking a little in the first book.
“The Tower of Living and Dying” is not only an engrossing read, it’s also a commentary on war. Battles and fighting might be prevalent throughout this book, but there’s no glorification. The chief method of showing the dichotomy of war is through Marith himself. Named “The King of Ruin”, he revels in death and destruction, but in quieter moments he is given to deep introspection, questioning his actions and the world that has formed him. His army cheers him when he slaughters without mercy, he has a wealth of family history that encourages him towards brutality, yet sometimes he truly sees what a terrible person he is and how an uncompromising world has forced him into such a role. His followers fight in an almost orgiastic frenzy, but through Marith’s battle-lust and subsequent self-questioning, the reader can understand how any man might be brought to such violence. Marith embraces his own love of destruction, even as he stands apart from it, both curious of and appalled at the emotions driving him.
Smith-Spark even goes one step further: Marith is King Ruin, a demon, but he’s also the main protagonist in the book. By making Marith a self-aware, flawed individual, he gains our sympathy. We find ourselves empathising with the devil himself. It’s like finding yourself cheering on the orcs from “The Lord of the Rings.” This twisting of traditional fantasy is further heightened by the tales which are interwoven into the text, often involving Marith’s own history. Smith-Spark relates them in an eloquent style so familiar to fantasy readers and so different to her usual style. These tales might have a traditional style, but what goes before and after them shows how they are riddled with falsity; it becomes clear that their smooth, flowery prose is used to conceal treachery and lies, whereas the stark narrative of the rest of the book shows us only the truth, as bloodstained and cruel as that might be.
My one warning about this book – much like its predecessor – is that it’s not an easy read. Its style is lyrical but concise; Smith-Spark does not waste words and there is no padding to her descriptions. Yet while each description might be evocative, the short sentences mean that you can rarely lose yourself in the flow of it because it is so abrupt. This isn’t a book to read with distractions around. Give it the peace and quiet it deserves and you’ll find yourself immersed in the world; but try to pick it up and read it in five-minute chunks, and you’ll never be fully drawn in.
The opening chapter to “The Court of Broken Knives” ended with the words:
Why we march and why we die,
And what life means… it’s all a lie.
Death! Death! Death!
While there is still plenty of death in “The Tower of Living and Dying” and this chant continues to be the chant of Marith’s army, death is not strictly the focus of this book. It’s about the dead. Even Orhan, secure in Sorlost and far from Marith, is not immune to the effects of the deaths that have gone before:
We paid for the men who attacked the palace to die. We killed them. We killed them all. I remember. I thought I did. Killed them. Dead.
Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.
And while Marith may have the motivation to kill his family in the most brutal way and in front of Thalia, he breaks down when it comes to burying those same family members and he cannot bear Thalia to see him in such a state. Smith-Spark examines the aftermath of battles from both a personal as well as a political point of view. Even if you’re on the winning side, there is still a nihilistic darkness to the whole affair of war that needs to be addressed if you’re to live with yourself. One character summarises it beautifully towards the end:
People think they care about living. But people, somewhere deep down, what they really care about is killing and death.
“The Tower of Living and Dying” is fresh, brutal and brilliant. If Hilary Mantel could write grimdark, she’d write an exquisite book like this. This isn’t a book to dip in and out of, but once you pick it up and lose yourself in its pages, you’ll be lost indeed.