Jumpdrives & Cantrips

February 24, 2008, 1801
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

WatchtowerBeing one of those authors who pops in and out of the publishing world, Elizabeth A. Lynn’s books can be hard to find. I first discovered her with Dragon’s Winter, published in 1998, and spent many years thereafter trying to search out anything by her that I could. What I didn’t know was Dragon’s Winter was a massive accomplishment for her. In the early eighties, Lynn suffered from severe writer’s block–she did not begin writing again until the mid nineties. Sometimes shelf space is a losing battle when an author doesn’t keep writing and her books don’t stay in print. In any case, I managed to find the entire Chronicles of Tornor at a book sale earlier this month and grabbed them up, fast as I could.

Watchtower is the first book in the Chronicles of Tornor trilogy, and Lynn’s second published novel. The story starts with Tornor Keep’s defeat from a southern army: Prince Errel is held hostage as the conquering lord’s jester so Ryke, Tornor’s defeated commander, will cooperate as a commanding officer for his new lord. The southern lord’s army has been pressing north in a winter battle, taking the keeps as they move through the mountains. When two messengers from the Green Clan bear a request for a treaty from the neighbouring keep, the prince secretly sends his commander to ask for the messengers’ aid in escaping the fallen keep. This eventually results in a journey to Vanima, a town of revolutionaries hidden in the mountains, and a plan to recapture Tornor.

Themes of societal change, gender and sexual identity, and questioning whether violence and war are acceptable practices permeate Watchtower. Elizabeth A. Lynn was one of the first fantasy and science fiction writers to explore GLBT themes, and this book antes up. The messengers are women who dress androgynously outside of Vanima, and fled their past lives to remain in a long-term relationship. Ryke tends toward the stubborn, and does not welcome change, remaining steadfastly loyal to Prince Errel and Tornor itself. He serves as a foil to Errel, often providing a conservative viewpoint and remains uncomfortable with life in Vanima even as he questions his own society throughout the book. It can be argued that Ryke falls in love with Errel over the course of the book, but there is no explicit mention of this.

Vanima itself has a non-hierarchical social structure with a communal economy. The entire community works together and learns chearis together, an oft nonviolent dance-like form of combat which is very much like aikido (not surprisingly, Lynn is a 6th dan aikido instructor). This is a strong contrast to Tornor, which has strictly defined sexual roles, a strong idea of us versus “the other”, and a distinct hierarchy devoted to warfare. Through Ryke, we experience his eventual horror and disgust with the violence of warfare and its consequences. Even more horrific is his acceptance at one point that sexual assault cannot even really be considered rape when done as a part of war.

Lynn’s writing reminds me of studying translated Icelandic sagas–the details are important. Characters show their inner thoughts and emotions through actions, and the book lacks descriptions of internal dialogue. However, the sparseness can be problematic and sometimes conceals characters more than revealing. Some passages depicting daily life in Vanima and in the resolution of the story near the end of the book come off as being prescriptive more so than descriptive, and this interferes with the “fourth wall” of the novel and contributes to breaking down the reader’s sense of wonder. A large part of the book is spent in travel of one sort or another, which can be seen as symbolic for the inner paradigm shift–most notably in Ryke.

Overall, Watchtower serves as an entry point to a world in the midst of upheaval. I suspect Watchtower was awarded the World Fantasy Award in 1980 for the intellectual exercise Elizabeth A. Lynn showcases in the novel more so than her prose. However much I like the simple phrasing of Lynn’s writing, it doesn’t negate the tenuous nature of our connection to her characters and world-building. More depth is required for a truly engaging read, but the book remains enjoyable and raises some important questions that remain relevant today.

Lynn, Elizabeth A. Watchtower. 1979. New York: Berkeley Books, 1981. 226 pages. $0.75 (Canadian), bought used.


5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

you’re just taunting people when you post prices like that! hehe.

I hadn’t heard of this one at all before you picked it up. You’ve got me intrigued, since I’ve been tending to enjoy more subtle writing lately.

Comment by flaede

It’s not a taunt, it’s a challenge! 😀

Yeah, depends what kind of mood I’m in for me. Sometimes I’m tired enough that I need to be whacked over the head with something.


Comment by admin

Thanks for this review. I recently read this book after it (and the other 2) sat on my shelf for at least 5 years (probably more). It was recommended on the Feminist SF/F/Utopia Listserv, which prompted my acquisition of all 3 in the series. I’m afraid I was rather disappointed in this novel. Mostly for the reasons you state as its failings. The lack of depth left me wondering and the characters sometimes said things so completely out of the blue that it completely threw me off. Anyway, I will probably read the other 2 just for completion’s sake. Despite considering when she wrote the book, I found the gay/lesbian portrayals to be rather thin. The fact that the main character, Ryke, appeared not to have learned much of anything or to have grown in any way left me feeling rather cheated.

Comment by Diane

Hey Diane,

Even with the downfalls, I still found I enjoyed the book a little, but it certainly isn’t a masterpiece. I also found Ryke to be a frustrating character just because he was so darned stubborn, but interesting for it. I haven’t gotten around to the other two, but they lie in wait. I’m hoping that they get better as she went along to be honest.

I think what I find more frustrating is that she never really fully explores the whole sexuality thing, because there was so much space for it to have that exploration, but it just never happened. I almost wonder if some of the book was actually censored to an extent. It’d be interesting to know if the published form was the intended outcome of the relationships or if things changed through editing…


Comment by admin

[…] all that long ago I wrote about Elizabeth A. Lynn’s Watchtower, the book that won the 1980 World Fantasy Award. It was also […]

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