The first book in the Chronicles of Tornor but can be read as a stand alone.

Publication year: 1979
Format: print
Page count: 222 plus an appendix about the cards of fortune
Publisher: Berkley

Col Istor has just conquered Tornor Keep and killed Lord Astor, the Keep’s stern but beloved ruler. However, Col lets Astor’s son and heir Errel live if Astor’s commander Ryke will work for him. Ryke has no choice but when he realizes that Col has made Errel a jester, it’s almost too much. Errel works in his new role while he and Ryke plot for escape. When two messengers arrive to Tornor, Errel thinks that they can be persuaded to help. The messengers are feared ghyas, hermaphrodites who skin their enemies alive.

Watchtower starts as a pretty standard epic fantasy but turns out be about clash of cultures. Errel and Ryke flee to a valley which they thought to be a myth. The society in Tornor and the Keeps around Tornor has strict hierarchies and gender roles. In Tornor, women are essentially chattel and men are either rulers, soldiers, or peasants. However, there’s no stigma for having a child outside marriage for the woman or the child. In Vanima, there are no servants and masters, women have as many opportunities are men, and everyone has to work for a living in the fields or as goat herds or doing something else productive. Errel takes to this life easily but Ryke considers it alien and can’t wait to get back to his normal life. The story also tells about brutalities done during a war.

In Vanima, fighting is also done differently. While elsewhere soldiers rely on strength and weapons, in Vanima both men and women train in martial arts. They also have dancing which resembles martial arts.

Ryke is pretty standard fantasy hero. Even though he’s not yet thirty, he’s set in his ways and more loyal to his lord than his family. His mother and siblings live in the village near Tornor and we get to see them a few times. However, he’s more worried about Errel than if his mother or sisters are going to live through war. Errel is more scholarly than a warrior but he’s also bound to his duties and will do what he can to his people. There are also several secondary women characters and even a lesbian couple.

Errel uses the Cards of Fortune to get vague hints about the future. They are apparently very similar to Tarot cards. They are supposedly magical although Ryke doesn’t believe in them.

The book has a map which confirms something I found a bit strange: all of the Keep are withing a few days ride to each other. The supposedly mythical Vanima valley is just eight days ride from Tornor. That seems a bit strange. Surely people would have explored at least a little around their homes? The book is set in the North with bitter, hard winters so people are pretty much forced to hunt and scavenge to keep alive. Also, the highly hierarchal society seems out of place in such a harsh environment.