Review: Watchtower by Elizabeth A. Lynn

Elizabeth A. Lynn’s novel Watchtower won the 1980 World Fantasy Award, and is the first in a trilogy set in her invented world of Arun. Going into it, I knew two things: that is was one of the first fantasy series to include openly queer characters, and that many people disagree with its ‘fantasy’ classification.

Watchtower opens mid-scene, as Ryke, a watch commander at the northern castle of Tornor Keep comes to after being knocked out in a battle. He wakes to find his lord, Athor, has been overthrown by the southerner Col Istor. Col spares him and makes him a commander in his new watch. Ryke reluctantly agrees in order to keep Athor’s son, the prince Errel, alive. Errel is forced to become a jester in Col’s new court.

This delicate peace doesn’t last long, when messengers arrive to offer a truce with another keep. The messengers belong to a mysterious clan who dress in green and make unbreakable oaths, and deal with traitors with extreme prejudice. Errel and Ryke escape, journeying across the land to the hidden valley of Vanima, where it is always summer, and they can plot their revenge on Col Istor.

This is a strange, rather beautiful and ultimately quietly devastating novel. For a novel about war it has surprisingly little action. It reminded me of those early seasons of Game of Thrones when characters spent multiple episodes crossing the land.

In fact almost everything in this novel is understated, from character to the fantasy elements. This mostly comes through Lynn’s imagined land. As the characters journey, they pass through realms that reminded me of Iceland and Scandinavia, the steppe of Central Asia, and the hidden Shangri-La valleys of the Himalaya. Her cultures draw from medieval Europe and Asia, including a troupe of dancers/martial artists who dedicate their lives to chea, or balance. The only thing that might count as real magic is some characters’ penchant for fortune telling and card reading.

The novel’s queer themes develop slowly but are tantalisingly subversive. Interestingly, the story’s lesbian couple are initially introduced as ghyas, or what one character calls hermaphrodites. “It is as if there was a man inside her,” one male character notes, and then goes on to wonder “was there also a woman inside men?” Sadly while the books lesbian couple live a full and open relationship (albeit fairly chaste), the novel’s same-sex attracted men live much more repressed lives. This is a story in part about the tragedy of desire that can’t or won’t be fulfilled.

Lynn is also attentive throughout to the gendered aspects of war, from the men’s inability to accept female fighters, to the horrific cost of war for women. On coming across a woman who has been raped and killed a character dispassionately observes that “the other was unimportant. It happened to all women. In war you could not even call it rape.” Yikes.

The writing is almost staid, more elegiac than energetic. Lynn has an eye for the natural world her characters inhabit, seeding it through her prose in interesting ways. To give but one example when Ryke is on his horse entering battle:

He leaned over the grey’s neck. A pebble popped up and struck his cheek. It hurt. He wiped it away. It left a smear on his glove. First blood.

I’m sure this writing would bother some people. I sometimes found it kind of sleep inducing but I began to find it more meditative. For all the human drama taking place, the seasons keep turning, and people are but bit players in the seemingly eternal cycle of nature.

Gay rating: 3/5 for one openly lesbian couple, some seriously repressed gay desire, and general gender fuckery.

Watchtower is published by Penguin Random House.