The Tower of Living and Dying is the second instalment in the Empires of Dust trilogy and ticks all the boxes that a middle book should be ticking. Second books often fall into the trap of just being mostly filler or spending the majority of time setting up the final book but not this one. The Tower of Living and Dying instead just continues on immediately from The Court of Broken Knives. It’s easier to look at it as one long story broken up into separate volumes à la the First Law trilogy.
The Tower of Living and Dying begins with Marith coming home to the White Isles and dealing with the fallout he caused at the end of the last book. It very quickly becomes clear that he won’t be content with ruling just the Isles and almost immediately goes on to start assaulting the mainland cities. He takes Thalia along and her seeing him in full-on conqueror mode results in most of the strife between them. Meanwhile Orhan is trying to regain control and normalcy in the wake of the recent unrest in Sorlost. There are a few other POVs including a couple of new ones discussed below that really help flesh out the story from multiple angles.
Everyone who has read The Court of Broken Knives knows of Anna Smith Spark’s engrossing and almost aggressive style of writing. It’s not so much what she does as what she excludes. Casual neglect of grammatical rules and a lack of punctuation sound like they’d be a nightmare to read through, but it works incredibly well here. Every action scene contains these short rapid-style sentences:
“Everything utter confusion, pressed so tight, everything shattering. Shredded. Choking. Drowning in each other. Crushing too tight to breathe. Eyes staring, swallowing each other’s sweat. Everywhere swords and spears and horses and metal grinding remorseless against metal and skin and bone. Push. Push. Hold. The line wavering. Thrashing like a boy cracking a rope. Osen’s left burning. Osen’s left falling apart. Just hold.”
It’s exhausting reading these passages, it’s such a visceral description. The reader doesn’t really know what’s going on, what the bigger picture is in the moment but neither does the soldier. Spark also makes great use chapter lengths, a few times at climactic moments there are one-page chapters that just halt the action, letting the reader gear up for an act’s culmination. One in particular is just fourteen words, four sentences long but still conveys a sort of respite from the action and builds up anticipation for what happens next.
There are a few POVs but Marith continues to be the main character. He also continues to be detestable. He becomes exactly the kind of person who believes that they are the most important person in the world – except in this case, he actually is. He thinks little to nothing of others, able to casually obliterate an entire city over the perceived slight of one man. His true personality is revealed in one line in particular:
“The secret hidden pleasure of every human heart, that it is waiting to die and to kill”
He thinks this in the heat of a battle when he feels most alive, and attributes it to everyone, both sides. The reader knows – inherently and also through the knowledge of other POVs – that this is entirely untrue, but it does reveal Marith’s true feelings. Throughout almost the entire first book Marith is suicidal, content to let his addictions consume him. If he died, he wouldn’t have cared, and it is now clear that he holds other lives in the same disregard.
Marith’s relationship with Thalia is another example of his vain outlook. Any time he thinks of her, it’s always in a completely objectified manner. He can only see her as another one of his possessions as shown below. In fact, I don’t think that there is a single time that he looks at her and doesn’t remind himself how beautiful and fragile she is. Fortunately, throughout the book, Thalia starts to come out of her shell and is perpetually in flux regarding Marith. She repeatedly blames herself for the atrocities he commits and slowly pulls away from him. It’s a slow growth in character but it’s realistic and it should be fascinating to see its conclusion in the final book.
“[I should have] Left her safe with Matrina to wait on her and teach her good eastern ways, had her brought over in triumph, crowned and robed in gold”
I won’t go into much detail to avoid spoilers, but my favourite chapters were that of Lan and Tobias. I’m a sucker for points of view of privileged persons forced to live as commoners and how they react to it. Lan’s chapters make for an interesting perspective as she sees just how little the common White Isle folk care or are affected by the tumultuous events happening on their island. Tobias is a lot of fun to read, he’s basically a stand-in for the reader – on several occasions I found myself having the exact same reactions as he did to developments in the story. I’m looking forward to learning more about him in the final book; there are some questions dangled about his past that are not fully explored so I hope they get answered eventually.
The other storyline running in tandem with Marith’s is Orhan’s back in Sorlost. It heavily contrasts with Marith’s as opposed to armies clashing over and over, it’s politicians moving against each other trying to take control of one city. Instead of successful military tactics, it’s inelegant solutions to a steadily worsening situation. Orhan, through some trial and error, becomes quite adept at his realpolitik game. He gradually loses his morals to deal with his ever-sinking ship of a city. Darath on the hand is just way out of depth – put succinctly by Celyse as ‘a little, angry, blustering boy’. He was never my favourite in The Court of Broken Knives, but he truly shows his colours when things look bad and he suggests they run away from everything, leave all those who know and rely upon them to their deaths. Definitely in the running for least likeable character. It’s not helped by his and Orhan’s incredibly toxic relationship. I’m not sure if it’s meant to written the way it is but they yell and argue and break up and make up like teenagers; it’s exhausting to read (not in a good way).
There’s one more POV that was introduced in A Tower of Living and Dying. I don’t want to mention details, but I will say that it felt a little transparent. It was included only quite late into the book, as if it was afterthought, as if Spark realised she needed another POV in Sorlost to properly describe what was happening. I thought it was a useful insight in that regard but perhaps it should have been introduced earlier to be more organic.
I enjoyed The Court of Broken Knives, but I didn’t love it. The Tower of Living and Dying took everything good from its predecessor, refined it and included some great new additions. It doesn’t try to be its own story but is a clear continuation of the universe and leaves enough plot hooks left to be resolved in Empires of Dust 3. I don’t know where the next book is going (there’s still half the map to explore!) but I can’t wait to read it.
Note: I received an early copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Anna, HarperVoyager and NetGalley for the copy.