Elizabeth A. Lynn is apparently openly lesbian and born in 1946. This book won the World Fantasy Award in 1980, originally published the year before, and the author has a sixth-degree black belt in aikido. She lives in San Francisco, and either teaches or taught martial arts. That’s about all the information that I can find on her. She appears to have written several other books and series, and a couple of the hallmarks of her work (according to the internet) are strong women, same-sex relationships, extreme violence, and sparse prose. She seems to have been one of the first authors to introduce same-sex relationships into speculative fiction.

Watchtower starts with a battle; Cor Istor takes over Tornor Keep with his army, on a quest to take over the entire land, and kills the entire royal family except for Errel, the only son. Ryke, one of the commanders, is spared as well, to feed Cor Istor information on the land and how to deal with it. A pair of messengers come from another local keepholder, and they help Ryke and his prince escape. Soon they find themselves traveling to Vanima, where it’s apparently summer all the time and those who live there learn how to fight bare-handed without killing. Will Errel ever get his keep back?

There’s a point to this book, and presumably the trilogy although I don’t have the other two volumes. Ryke is absolutely a product of his time and place, and he is hit over the head repeatedly to try to disabuse him of several notions. First, he meets women who don’t want to get married, have babies, and run a household. Next, he meets men who don’t want to fight — or at least ones who don’t want to kill while they do it. They’re even in a place for a while where men and women do essentially the same tasks — or at least where the tasks aren’t particularly assigned by sex. Clearly the book is attacking stereotypical gender roles, and this book had to be very important at the start of feminist sf.

I saw this book listed on an LGBT book forum as having transgendered secondary characters, referring to Norres and Sorren, and I suppose that’s true, provided the definition of ‘transgendered’ is ‘an individual who does not fit the gender stereotypes of his/her/zir society.’ If Norres and Sorren lived in 21st-century America, I do not believe they would be considered transgendered (being that the current definition of transgendered involves a physical element); they’d merely be in the military, firefighters, martial artists, CEOs or something that didn’t used to be considered a standard job for women. However, they are certainly transgressive characters and perhaps a bit queer, and I liked them quite a bit. At the beginning of the book, they were almost interchangeable, but by the end (less than 250 pages later) they had well-defined differences.

It is, fortunately, a complete story in one volume; I guess the later books follow different characters after this. I would like to read the later volumes, as apparently the gender-queerness and sexual queerness becomes a larger part of the story. I’m not sure the story is particularly for YAs, but that’s more because of the amount of violence, including sexualized violence, included in the tale. Ms. Lynn makes an obvious dichotomy between those who practice her martial art (one of balance) and those who practice war, and between that and her point about stereotypical gender roles, it does get preachy at times. Still, it’s quite interesting to see one of the early players in the field, and I would very much recommend it to anyone who enjoys seeing where we’ve come from. 4/5 stars.