A Review of The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
This is the first book I read within 2020 (this year) in its entirety, and it’s a very different book to those I usually read. I don’t tend to read much fantasy. As a child, I categorically avoided anything even remotely fantastical out of a lack of understanding for anything mystical. I lacked the ability to even think about what could lie beyond a very straightforward reading of nature as a system of physics. Over the years I’ve gained more and more of said ability, but still to this day, I prefer my books to be grounded in a physical reality I experience every day. And still, I find myself uninterested in what could be called “big picture stuff”. I don’t care for troops sent out to do this, Kings set to do that. Not unless I can establish a relationship with them beforehand. That just usually is easier if there isn’t a mountain of exposition and world-building in the way. This preference of mine is probably one to keep in mind while you read this review of The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie.
I first heard about Ann Leckie when she won the HUGO award for her book Ancillary Justice in 2015. And I’ve heard much good about the trilogy Ancillary Justice started since, but I have to admit, I have not read any one of those books. This, The Raven Tower, is the first book by Ann Leckie I came to read.
The Physical Book
The paperback of The Raven Tower I own is a big one, probably among the biggest paperbacks I own and it’s of the floppy kind, I’ve always somewhat disliked. This 2019 edition by orbit has 416 pages, but all of them are set fairly large and with spacious margins. Margins perhaps, that could have contained Fermat’s marvellous proof. And while its pages are floppy and it’s pages besmirched with a repeating dollop of misplaced ink, the dark cover brooding like a seal and lock on the book captures the essence of this book so well.
To any uninvolved onlooker, the cover might look reserved and uninviting, but to anyone, who has read more than the first few pages, this cover is a merciless siren of mystery and hidden darkness. This luring is only increased by the beautiful illustration on the first pages of the book and the ravens that lurk ever so often on the pages at breaks in narration.
The Setting & Worldbuilding
The Raven Tower‘s plot is for the most part centred around the fictional country of Iraden and its de-facto capital Vastai, but the reader does learn about a lot of the surrounding terrain though especially the area to the north of Iraden. I’m not usually interested in big picture stuff like countries and wars and often would prefer to read about intricate details of small locations than to know the borders and landscapes of a fictional country. Much of that is founded in my aforementioned dislike of fantasy settings, but there was definitely an exposition hump to overcome with this book for me. Only after that hump, I truly came to appreciate the world as a setting for the story’s characters.
Even if descriptions of single places and objects are rarely exhaustive, over time they build a gripping picture of a world in which multiple gods and humans coexist and interact based on rules and on the limitations of godly power.
In this world that becomes the reader’s home over the 400 odd pages of this book, you learn to know a few characters really well. There’s Eolo probably our main identification point within the story, except for the narrator The Patience of the Hill. Now, this feels almost like a mild spoiler already, because it is something that is only hinted at, at first, and only later revealed in its full consequence, but Eolo is trans. And oh boy is it good representation. Now I’m not a trans man, only a trans woman, but this felt like a genuinely beautiful example of good trans representation to me. Eolo is smart, resourceful and quick to act nevertheless. Serving his Lord Matwat, The Lease’s Heir, who is more often viewed as a petulant child than a good commander they form an interesting team to unravel the mysteries of the story surrounding the Raven’s Lease, Matwat’s father, and his succession.
With the Raven, we are now at the other big group of characters: the gods of Iraden and its surrounding countries. The Raven is ruler over Iraden, in a power-share agreement with the god of the silent forest. But more interesting are the two gods of the north with which we make intimate acquaintance. There’s one the Myriad come as a meteor often represented as a swarm of mosquitos, and even more important, The Patience of the Hill, who is the narrator of our story and plays a decisive role in the unfolding of the plot.
The Patience of the Hill is an interesting narrator. As a god, they are bound by the rules of their own power. In the world of the Raven, a god may only speak that what is true, or what they know to be within their power to make true. If they stray from this rule, they run the risk of draining their power either indefinitely or even dying. This leads to a very careful story-telling often hedging bets over things The Patience of the Hill has no immediate knowledge about or has only heard about.
With that prudence comes another quirk about this narration. Huge parts of this novel are told in second-person-narration. Namely, any bit that talks about Eolo is told from the perspective of The Patience of the Hill recounting the plot and feelings of Eolo to Eolo himself. That takes a bit to get used to but seems very effective at conveying the character of this story and world to the reader.
From the start this plot centres around human sacrifice and worship. These are the things that can feed a god’s power and this nourishment might be vital especially in times of need and war. The Raven has a peculiar arrangement for a human sacrifice. The god inhabits a raven, but every so often this instrument dies and with its death and the birth of a new instrument the Raven’s Lease is obligated to kill himself. The Lease’s Heir takes the position on the bench of the Raven. As Matwat, Heir to the Lease arrives in Vastai with his companion Eolo, the Lease, Matwat’s Father has disappeared, without fulfilling his obligation. In his place, Matwat’s Uncle Hibal has taken the role of the new Lease, but that opens just even more questions.
At the same time, there’s a much longer plot unfolding. An outright war of the gods is taking place over centuries, somewhat in secret to the humans inhabiting the world around Vastai, only breaking out into outright war every so often.
All this comes to a culmination within the Raven Tower and it’s full of intrigue, traps and brooding and intelligent actors on multiple levels of power. Only after I had finished this book, someone mentioned the idea that this is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And I might agree if not for the fact, that I’ve never in my life seen or read a Shakespeare play, not less Hamlet.
This is very much a book worth picking up. It’s, and I say this not casually, definitely the best book I’ve read within the last couple of years. It might not be the most “valuable” or the most adult and earnest literature, but it was honestly gripping, well written, and interesting. This is a world worth diving in.
Now there’s definitely an exposition hump to get over and an unusual second-person-narration to get used to, but that effort is without question worth it. I often, like with my last review, qualify to whom I recommend this book. For this book, however, I don’t feel the need to add any more qualifications. Thus, I’ll just say it plainly: Do read this book! It’s great. I don’t have this feeling often, but I truly didn’t want this world to end, just because I wanted to remain enthralled in its story.
My last book review was about The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. Next up, a review of Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. You can find all the images of this review (and a fe more) on my Ko-Fi. I’d appreciate your small support. Thank you.