It’s been ages since the last time I read the Seventh Tower series by Garth Nix, but I’d been meaning to read it again, so this weekend I sat down and blasted through all six volumes. (At around 200 middle-gradey pages each, they’re not a heavy read.) I did remember enjoying the series when I read it the first time—probably way back around when it was published between 2000–2002—but very little else. All I remembered was that I liked them enough, so they’d survived several cullings of my ridiculously large book collection until such time as I could reread them and rejudge.
Having finally done just that, I am happy to report that the series is definitely an enjoyable read, although I probably won’t be holding onto them for another round a decade into the future. I was impressed to see that The Seventh Tower uses magic and worldbuilding in a fascinating way that allows for a deconstruction of privilege that feels organic to the story, while providing us with a strong female touchpoint character as well. Although, given that it was Garth Nix writing, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.
The Seventh Tower is a series of six books (and believe me, was I pissed as a kid that a series where the mythology is based around sevens only had six books) that follow Tal, a Chosen, and Milla, an Icecarl, as they learn to reconcile their two worlds in order to defend against a greater threat. The Chosen live in an enormous, isolated castle, and believe that there is nothing else outside their towers. They use magic crystals called Sunstones to bend light and to tie shadows to their will, and their society is ranked against the colors of the rainbow, with their leader at the top of Violet. When Tal loses his Sunstone, he ends up outside the castle in his search for a new one and encounters Milla. Her society, the Icecarls, are a Scandinavian-coded Viking-like nomadic matriarchy who abhor shadow magic and have a strict system of honor. Both of these cultures exist under the Veil, a magical cloud-layer that keeps their world separate from the spirit world of Aenir, but they live apart and partly in ignorance of each other. However, when a sinister Chosen threatens to undo the Veil, wreaking both climatic havoc on the now-frozen world below as well as allowing an invasion of spirits from Aenir in a rekindling of the millennia-old war that the Veil had put a stop to, Tal and Milla have to overcome their differences and protect the Veil—all while helping the Chosen society through a little revolutionary upheaval of its own.
Basically the one thing I remembered about this series before rereading it was Milla. She’s an incredibly badass young woman and it’s exciting to see that, while Tal is more our protagonist, she is the more relatable and engaging character. While Tal’s unlearning his privilege, she’s the one pointing it out to him. Also, she’s a talented Shield Maiden-in-training with a sense of honor bigger than Prince Zuko’s without the horrible childhood trauma, so there’s that. And while both Chosen and Icecarl society are pretty equal in terms of gender roles, it’s from the Icecarls that most of the awesome women of this series come. The Icecarls have these semi-mystical breathing techniques that allow them to achieve superhuman feats, and you’re damn wrong if you don’t think I spent at least one afternoon trying to figure them out. (I also once spent a day trying to commune with the Force after reading a lot of Star Wars EU novels, so this wasn’t super out of character for me.)
Speaking of the Force, one of the things I learned when revisiting this series was that they were not an original project by Garth Nix, but a premise that he’d been hired to write and develop for LucasFilms, of all people. I wonder if this contributed to the lack of a seventh book, as the ending of the sixth was a bit rushed. If the books weren’t selling super well, they might have had him speed through a conclusion and tweaked his contract to adjust for a shorter series. If it had been a juggernaut, would LucasFilms have wanted to make a movie adaptation? All I do know is that there’s a George Lucas blurb right there on the back cover that I must have missed several years ago.
Another thing I didn’t remember, probably because I was not Woke™ as a child, was that this series does a lot of work to teach readers about privilege in an intriguing way. When the series begins, Tal has never questioned the strictly hierarchical system by which the Chosen live, including accepting as the natural order the caste of servants, the Underfolk, who serve the Chosen. After he meets Milla, he is forced to reconsider the Chosen’s supposedly ordained place at the top of the food chain, and comes to understand that what is meant to be a meritocratic power structure on its face—talented Chosen can rise through the ranks while demerits can drop you down as low as Red, or even into the Underfolk—is actually pretty fucked up. That said, this doesn’t happen easily or immediately. It’s a process that Tal fails at and has to work at, and it takes time as well as interaction with the actual marginalized people whose suffering he was benefiting from for the lesson to stick.
We also get an interesting discussion of belief through the lens of privilege; at one point, Tal speaks over Milla and uses shadow magic in a way that saves her life, but had she been given the choice, she would have chosen death over the taint of shadows her culture hates so much. When Tal realizes that she is determined to commit an honorable suicide once their mission is done to cleanse herself of the taint he placed on her, he is horrified. Thankfully, her people offer her another way to ritually purify herself, but it’s clear that Tal didn’t take her convictions remotely seriously until that point. Rather, he figured that once he showed Milla his “civilized” ways, she’d shed her belief system and come around to hers. The only downside to this is that this discussion, which is usually a very racially coded one in real life, is between a white character (Tal) and an even whiter character (Milla). Still, it was cool to see this discussion being had at a middle grade level, in a way that let the reader put their own conclusions together without it feeling too on the nose.
While I am unlikely to read the series again—bookshelf space is already at a premium in my apartment—I did enjoy my time in the weird, fascinating, and at times a bit chaotic world of The Seventh Tower. It was worth revisiting, and I’d definitely recommend it to fans of Garth Nix’s other work as well.
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