Check out my review policy for a few disclaimers before proceeding.
Content warnings: People getting injured or dead in various horrible ways, not necessarily praised consequentialism, and in the official translation, inconsistently censored swearing.
What? Not a book review? No, this is a review of not merely a comic, but an online comic, which can be conveniently read for free on the official site. And this is not merely any webcomic, but my favorite of all time. Why? Read on.
Before I begin extolling the virtues of Tower of God, I will address one issue that an English reader will encounter: the translation. Translating a work the size of Tower of God is no small feat, and it would be unreasonable to complain that the translators aren’t doing a perfect job. However, the syntax and language of the official (fan-made) translation, while readable, is not that of a native English speaker. In addition, for a long time Tower of God had only unofficial fan translations with inconsistent transliterations, which today means that the same character is called Endorsi Jahad in the official translation and Androssi Zahard in the fan-made wiki. I bring this up in case you seek the wiki to understand Tower of God’s complicated plot and are baffled by different names.
Tower of God is set in the eponymous Tower, a massive structure of continent-sized floors. A few, called Regulars, may climb the Tower, and their motives for climbing are as varied as themselves. To quote the description:
What do you desire? Money and wealth? Honor and pride? Authority and power? Revenge? Or something that transcend all of them? Whatever you desire- is in here.
The protagonist of the first part is a young boy called the Twenty-Fifth Bam (“Bam” means Night, or possibly Chestnut), who climbs the Tower in search of a girl named Rachel, who was his only companion. Rachel wishes to climb the tower to the top in search of what is considered a myth: the stars.
The only way up the Tower is to pass tests, and as inevitable in a fantasy work, these are not bubble tests. The tests are games, cruel and often unreasonable, with complex rules designed to serve the administrators at the cost of the (usually unwilling) participants. The first test of the second floor is a deadly free-for-all among four hundred would-be Regulars. Once their number is lethally halved, the survivors are told to form a team with two others within minutes or face elimination, thus forcing them to form a team with people who had been trying to kill them seconds before.
Yet it is not merely the administrators who are cruel. Shortly after forming a team, the would-be Regulars told to pass through a wall of Shinsu (literally: holy water), the waterlike substance that pervades the Tower in the place of air. Any who cannot pass the wall are eliminated, along with their whole team. And this wall, as Lero-ro (an administrator) reveals to a complainer, is no more dense than the standard pressure of the higher floors. It is a simple, and inescapable, misfortune that some cannot and can never climb the tower.
God, despite being named in the title, is mentioned but oddly absent. Is God cruel, Lero-ro asks, to show you your potential and then prevent you from achieving it? This question is never given a cheap answer, to the credit of SIU’s art. The concept of divinity is never far, nonetheless, especially in the second part.
I mentioned consequentialism in the content warnings. There is no cheap moral message in Tower of God, also to the credit of SIU’s art. To climb the Tower means to sacrifice much, morals, even teammates. Those who have reached the top of the tower, the Rankers, make still greater sacrifices in the pursuit of their goals, if they are even serving the same ideals with which they claimed. The first part studies this in-depth: only a limited number of candidates will become true Regulars, and helping anyone can hurt your own chances. Can you sacrifice others for your own desires? Or can you give up what you most desire to help others, who will in no way reciprocate?
One character, Endorsi Jahad, tells one of the more moving side stories: Her family, seeking the power gained from having a girl adopted as a princess by the king of the tower, throws many girls into their own miniature games of cruelty. Endorsi survived and became a princess merely by being most ruthless–she tells this story in the middle of her own act of ruthlessness. Even then, she acknowledges her own evil as evil. She is both a spokeswoman for consequentialism and her own condemnation. It is this open brokenness that humanizes the often-murky motives of the many characters.
Bam himself is innocent of consequentialism, and indeed struggles in his naivety against the ever-present cruelty of the Tower. Nevertheless, he benefits from the evils of the others. Of Bam’s two initial teammates, Khun Aguero Agnes is a mastermind who schemes through the many rules of the games to help his friend through, usually without his friend’s awareness or understanding. “Hero” is perhaps the wrong word for Khun, though he is on the side of the protagonist, and a sympathetic character. But again, he is aware of the cost he pays, his own evil in doing good.
But Tower of God is not a complete series of gloomy events and betrayals. Hardly a chapter goes by without something bizarre, hilarious, or simply absurd occurring. Bam’s other main teammate, Rak Wrathraiser, is an easily-enraged enormous bipedal crocodile who calls everyone “turtle.” One of the teachers on Floor 2 looks like some kind of mascot for a fast food joint. One of the most powerful weapons in the Tower, a needle called the Black March, agrees to help Bam because she finds it romantic. Urek Mazino, one of the most powerful beings in the Tower, turns out to be a… And so on.
Violence is also never far from the story (this is an action comic!) Characters fence with sword-like needles, throw concentrated balls of Shinsu at each other, or more often simple punch and kick each other with such force that they shatter the walls they crash into. I have winced at more than one panel. As in the normal style of Korean webcomics, Tower of God comes in one vertical series of images, giving a sense of flow to the action. Note that the violence gets worse in the second part.
The first part lasts around seventy episodes, ending with one of the best plot twists I have ever seen. The second, ongoing, part the second part is darker, both in art and tone than the first part. The second part begins with a new batch of characters (on top of, eventually, the original cast). The protagonist of the second part is possibly Wangnan Jah, a weakling Regular on the twentieth who seeks to overthrow King Jahad and replace the cruelty of the tower with a new reign. Or the protagonist might be Jyu Viole Grace, an extremely powerful Regular in the service of a criminal group called FUG. FUG also seeks to kill Jahad, though FUG is by no means good. There are enough plot twists shortly thereafter to make describing it further too spoiler-intensive.
Epic plot-twists are another quality of Tower of God, though this quality has issues. Tower of God is described as the author as a Talse Uzer Story, where the laws of the world are fixed. Indeed this appears so, and many of the twists had clear planning and hints–no desperate changes to appease a bored audience. Nonetheless, many of these clearly planned twists of fixed laws involve hidden rules only revealed at the last moment, and attempting to spot them in advance would have been nearly impossible (if possible at all.) At this to the sometimes unclear rules, and it is difficult to follow the story at all sometimes. Still, the endless cunning of Khun and the story’s other master schemers make an entertaining experience, even when incomprehensible.
There is much more I could praise onwards about Tower of God, but this is already a lengthy review. Just go read it already!
Verdict: One Great Blue Heron of Quality.