So this review is jumping the queue, because I love it. Sorry, all-other-allegedly-superior-books and books waiting in the review-queue, I play favourites. [I swear I'll get to Till We Have Faces, Freakonomics, Spindle's End...]
I inhaled the six books of Garth Nix's The Seventh Tower series--The Fall, Castle, Aenir, Above the Veil, Into Battle and The Violet Keystone--in the last two days. This is not a feat because they're tiny little books published by Scholastic, and two hundred large-print pages apiece, and also I've read them before. For the past few months, I've just had the most intense craving for this series and put it off because I was busy, or out of country, but then I got my hands on them and yes, they are still delightful.
I love Garth Nix for how he treats pat ideas in fantasy. The Seventh Tower takes place in a world living under the Veil, a thick layer that prevents sunlight from reaching the ground. In this world, light is of paramount importance. The people who live in the seven towers are almost all Light mages of some sort or another, and are divided into seven orders--from Red up to Violet. Within these colours there are further class divisions, with Violet Shadowlords at the top and Red Dimmers at the bottom. Light, channeled through Sunstones, is made into powerful weapons and tools; using a powerful enough Sunstone, a user can make solid stairways and floors out of light, play a symphony on specially-constructed crystal, or fire off destructive rays. Again, the colour of the light plays a role--generally, Violet is most powerful, but there are also specific colours for specific purposes (Green ray of healing, Red ray of destruction.) Colour and light also signify all sorts of other things; instead of bowing, you give light from your Sunstones, and judging of events is coded by the colour you flash (Yellow ray of failed ambition, Violet of Attainment, White ray of disgust, etc.) People can only use colours in their own level or below; a Green man might use any colour from Red to Green, but not Blue and above.
This seven-way split in class divisions and power is so easy to make artificially perfect--cut-and-dry fantasy, colour-by-numbers fantasy. But like his standalone novel Ragwitch, which deals with the four Elements (an overused motif) both novels are done in a very original way.
For one, the protagonist, Tal, is never really 'in' the social construct of the Seven Towers. He's a boy of the Orange order on the verge of adolescence/adulthood, but his father's disappearance, mother's sickness and familial indifference force him to do desperate (and illegal) acts to try to save his family. In trying to obtain a Primary Sunstone, he falls off the Red Tower and into a society entirely alien to him--Icecarls, the people who live on the ice that covers the world. The series deals a lot with culture clash; Milla, the first Icecarl he meets and his companion in his adventures, is practically Tal's opposite in every way. The simple existence of people outside the Towers is itself shocking to Tal, and the Icecarls have their own brand of magic. Aenir is the spirit world above the Veil, where Sunstones and Spiritshadows (familiars made of shadow) are gathered; this world is like a fantastical version of Earth-with-sunshine, and is a third culture which is totally different from Tal's normal existence.
The supporting cast doesn't quite fall into the nice seven-towers, seven-colours mold either. Tal's parents are out of the picture, so he goes for help to his great-uncle Ebbitt, one of my favourite characters. Ebbitt was once a Indigo Brightblinder but fell all the way down to Red Dimmer, but he's clearly extremely clever. What makes him fun is that he is intermittently absent-minded and mad, completely lost on his own (fascinating yet irrelevant) train of thought. He's also very funny, and provides some of the comic relief in addition to his more standard mentor role. The Spiritshadow that Tal acquires isn't standard, either; he fails to bind it, and the two are more in a mutual partnership than anything else.
Personally I think the fact that these novels don't have an active massive fandom is a crying shame, because I love the worldbuilding so, so, so much. The world of Tal and Milla and Aenir and the Towers are a huge part of what I think of as my favourite type of fantasy. It takes ideas from real life (seven colour spectrum) and transforms it into a world predicated on those ideas--which is then turned upside down and torn apart, like all good novels. With this tenuous connection to the real world, Nix avoids a lot of horrendous weighty info-dumping, which is the bane of my existence when it comes to reading secondary-world fantasy. It's a lot like The Phantom Tollbooth, I think. Certainly the whimsy of The Phantom Tollbooth isn't the same, but there's a certain humour and wryness that is equally charming in all the books. As well, though there are sort of rules about magic, Tal goes off the beaten track quickly, and Nix doesn't overdescribe everything (that tends to take the magic out of it.) Instead, the reader gets to see things from the side instead of head-on--Tal thinks about his life in the Tower, and the things he's seen others do, but he's preoccupied with everything else and the magic remains tantalizingly hinted at.
If you can get your hands on this series, do! They're tiny; you'll finish them in no time. And the world they make is fantastic.