|The Tower of Fear|
The book was published in '89, at the time of the Silver Spike (another of Cook's great achievements), and so falls somewhere in the middle of his staggering catalogue. It tells the tale of a city conquered by an Empire of short bald men (something which seems a pet pieve of Cook's) rife with intriguing factions seemingly more concerned with getting one up on the other than the local populace. The conquest was only made possibly by the improbable defeat of the city's great sorceror-tyrant, Narkar, in a sorcerous duel. The city is divided between two forces, The Empire of Herod and their allies the Datars have a strenuous hold because of their few numbers but they are opposed by a rebellious faction called the Living, made up of some of the surviving soldiers of the last battles before the city was conquered. In between stand the citizens of Qushmarrah, trying to get on with their lives. Centered on a family caught in the middle of the struggle between these two, and a third more shadowy faction Cook weaves a tale of feint and counterfeint and at last a cataclysmic (well, on a city-level at least) turn of events flushes everyone out, and scrabbling for the lives. As usual Cook deals in the many shades of gray, and while no sympathy is spent on Narkar his minions are depicted thoroughly and with, on many levels, likable characteristics. He has a way of humanizing, and rationalizing, the most selfish and 'evil' acts which lends the story itself more depth. And while the pragmatic and cynical soldiers and minions deal out their hurting, they have very varying reasons for doing so, and in many cases they still to cling to lofty ideals and romantic notions.
Cook is also very good at painting a vivid setting, with passing history or memories, that sends you grasping for more hints and wondering at the wider picture. There's revelations about Narkar's past that set me thinking about the events that saw him end up in Qushmarrah. Fa'tad al-Akla is another character who's not really central to the viewpoints of the story but who's backstory is fleshed out further and further with the mythos and historical recollections of other characters in the book but that still leaves you wondering at the how's and why's.
As more of a sidenote I can say that I love the way Cook's uses magic and it's users. There's just enough information available to piece it together but it's mysterious and flawed in the way of the characters that use it. While not quite on a par with the Dominator, Narkar is depicted as a terrible tyrant and someone who was seemingly indestructible. And then in a passing sentence he is made that much more human.
All in all the Tower of Fear is a tale as strong as Cook's finest. I wouldn't put it quite at the top of his works, but for me personally it's definetely a top 10. It works much in the same vein as the Black Company novels and the Dread Empire chronicles and to me it felt more solid than the Instrumentalities books. I haven't finished that series yet though so that might be some explanation. I admire Cook's way of managing to pack as much characterization, action and depth of story into just 375 pages as he does, much like he did in the aforementioned the Silver Spike, something which I feel a lot of writers today have problems with. There's a beauty in dramatic prose and witty dialogue but Cook's succinct and seemingly brutal way of telling a story takes fantasy literature back to it's core. While at a glance it might feel shallow and cold but Cook's greatness as a writer lies in his ability to flesh out his world in just a passing sentence or with an observation on the fly from one of his strong characters. The grandness is only hinted at, but the story as a whole is that much greater for it.
READSTER MAGNITUDE SCALE: 7.1
REMINDS ME OF: The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie with the same clear-cut sense of what makes a good story without too much embroidery.