Elizabeth Lynn’s Watchtower is the first novel in a trilogy called The Chronicles of Tornor. Tornor is a fortress city that forms part of a line of such independent fortress city states along the northern edge of…well, I guess of the known world. At the beginning of the novel, Tornor is taken in battle by the evil Col Istor. Col kills the wise and benevolent king of Tornor and turns the prince, Errel, into his court jester. Ryke eventually manages to escape with Errel thanks to the aid of two mysterious (and somewhat androgynous) women, Norres and Sorren.
Norres and Sorren take Ryke and Errel to a sort of Shangri-La in the south called Vanima. Vanima is a warm valley and a refuge from the war-torn north. The people of Vanima also practice a communal “dance,” which is actually a powerful form of unarmed martial arts (Lynn notes that she based it on aikido in a brief introduction). So, Ryke learns the new martial art, Errel reads some tarot cards, and they prepare to take back Tornor.
I actually enjoyed this novel quite a bit more than I thought it would. The plot might feel a little slight (the above is actually a fairly detailed description of the entire first two acts of the novel) compared to the big epics that seem to dominant the fantasy genre, and especially fantasy series. It’s a small world – we basically get Vanima, Tornor, and two other Tornor-like fortresses as the entire fantasy world – but at least it feels manageable. And I liked the idea of having a nicely focused character piece instead. It’s not a must-read overlooked classic, and, for such a character-focused work, the characters can feel a bit flat. The high concept of martial arts meets medieval fantasy didn’t quite work for me either. But, it is well-written, relatable, and readable, which was a welcome change after the over-wrought Riddle-master books.
Apparently, according to Wikipedia, Lynn’s novels are most famous as the earliest fantasy novels to present homosexual relationships in a positive light. I think it’s a welcome sign of the changes in our society that I hardly even noticed the gay couple in the novel (it was done fairly subtly as well).