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Joint Review: THE RAVEN TOWER by Ann Leckie

Title: The Raven Tower

Author: Ann Leckie

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Orbit
Publication Date: February 2019
Hardcover: 416 Pages

For centuries, the kingdom of Iraden has been protected by the god known as the Raven. He watches over his territory from atop a tower in the powerful port of Vastai. His will is enacted through the Raven’s Lease, a human ruler chosen by the god himself. His magic is sustained via the blood sacrifice that every Lease must offer. And under the Raven’s watch, the city flourishes.

But the power of the Raven is weakening. A usurper has claimed the throne. The kingdom borders are tested by invaders who long for the prosperity that Vastai boasts. And they have made their own alliances with other gods.

It is into this unrest that the warrior Eolo–aide to Mawat, the true Lease–arrives. And in seeking to help Mawat reclaim his city, Eolo discovers that the Raven’s Tower holds a secret. Its foundations conceal a dark history that has been waiting to reveal itself…and to set in motion a chain of events that could destroy Iraden forever.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did we get this book: Review copy from the publisher

Format (e- or p-): Print

REVIEW

Ana’s Take:

There will be a reckoning.

These are the first words in Ann Leckie’s utterly fantastic standalone novel The Raven Tower, her debut Epic Fantasy after the multiple award-winning Science Fiction Ancillary series.

At first glance perhaps we have seen it all: a young farmer’s son is off to win his fortune as a soldier in service to an heir and then becomes embroiled with the fates of humans and gods, especially when one special God starts to pay attention to him and he becomes well, a Chosen One.

But there is the thing: the god – one of the Ancient Ones, a literal rock who is known as The Strength and Patience of the Hill – is the one narrating the novel, telling us their story through time since The Beginning) in first person, a story that is both local and large, epic and personal. The Hill has seen people – and gods – come and go, has seen oceans change and learned to communicate. The question of language, of speaking and communicating is of utmost important here.  Through the use of language, the gods communicate with people yes, but there are rules to that. Rules to being a god, that say a god’s words are inescapably true (as long as they have sufficient power to make them true); and that speaking an untruth (or rather, something they don’t have power to enforce) can drain a god’s power for a long time or even kill them. But with enough power and please pay attention to this bit, with “carefully chosen words”, a god can do anything.

So through time, The Strength and Patience of the Hill has seen things. Met people. They have a BFF, the Myriad, who has arrived on Earth on a meteorite and has advised and kept The Hill company. They fought together in a war to avenge some wrongdoings done to the people who has worshiped them and this is when things started to well…. Take a turn. That war has been fought against the forces of the Raven, a God who together the Silent Forest has kept the port of Vastai and its human inhabitants safe.

But that war was a long time ago and the Raven is still a powerful god whose will and wants are communicated through his Instrument to the Raven’s Lease, a human ruler who gets to live a perfectly amazing life with all comforts he requires until a time comes when he must die in blood sacrifice to the Raven. The Lease MUST die and a new Lease must be Seated every time a new Instrument is hatched. If this doesn’t happen, the word of the god is untrue and that is just…. Impossible.   

So here enters our (our?) hero, Eolo, who The Strength and Patience of the Hill spends most of the novel talking to in second person. The Strength and Patience of the Hill has placed all of their attention on Eolo, trying to communicate with him for an unbeknownst reason to us all (until the end, the reason is very clear in the end). Eolo is the young man abovementioned: he is a transman, a powerful warrior and the quietly smart aid to his master Mawat, the next in line to be the Lease after his father dies. But when they arrive back to the Tower, they find that a new Lease has been installed, and that Mawat’s father has disappeared, not died. Mawat knows this to be an impossibility. His father MUST be dead. And he, Mawat should be the new Lease. The RAVEN SAYS SO.  

But Eolo is not so sure. And he sets out to investigate what exactly happened to Mawat’s father, how can these things be happening – and in the process, Eolo will find out the secrets behind the Raven Tower, the truth behind the Raven’s own power and how humans have benefited from it. And as much as these things go: snooping around brings unexpected answers one may not be ready to hear.  

“The relevant question here, it seems to me, is not any of those things. It is, rather, Do you care?”

This is a rewarding novel for the patient reader, the one who is willing to hear a story told (more than shown) that stretches through a long period of time keeping track of a god’s growth into their own power and how exactly that is accomplished in fits and starts and longs period of silent and navel gazing – its rewards as multi-layered as the novel itself. There is matter of human politics and diplomacy here too, and of tricking people into speaking words in a certain way as well as a story that investigates the nature of religion, belief and of godhood. On a more personal and human level, we have Eolo, his struggle to be heard on a matter that seems beyond his capable mind further establishing himself as a wise young man.

I don’t know if there are any better words here for this particular god than Strength and Patience and oh my gods, when the promised reckoning comes? Did I tell you this is a revenge story? The when, why and how is just not exactly what we were expecting. But it is so clever and oh so satisfying. The very last sentence of the novel, goose bumpingly good. With a mastery of language and a careful control of a storyline that leaves nothing out, this is truly a novel that shines.

If there is such a thing as a cosy Epic Fantasy that manages to do new things to the genre whilst simultaneously examining the question of language, the tricks of communication and also being a murder mystery as well as a Revenge Story? This is it. My mind. It is officially blown.

Absolutely recommended and already one of my favorite books of 2019.

Thea’s Take:

I had a very different experience than Ana did. I enjoyed The Raven Tower, and there are many things to love about the book. But there are also many, many flaws. The Raven Tower certainly executes its revenge story–but it’s a cheap kind of trick. A short story shock. A twist, on par with a decent Twilight Zone episode. Don’t get me wrong–I admire many things about this book, most notably Leckie’s dedication and technical expertise in its telling.
But did I actually like the book?

Let us start at the beginning.

The narrator of The Raven Tower is an ancient god: the Strength and Patience of the Hill, as he is known by his followers, friends, and, eventually, his enemies. The Strength and Patience of the Hill narrates the entire novel in the second person–addressing much of his narrative towards Eolo (a character who cannot hear him, for the most part, but an instrumental tool in the overall plans of the god), and thusly towards us, the readers. In essence, we readers are Eolo (more on that, and the dearth of characterization, in a bit). The narrative flips back and forth between Eolo’s timeline, and the events that led the Strength and Patience of the Hill to… well, where it is in Eolo’s timeline. The stone god is very, very old, and very, very introspective. He has had millennia to ponder on his existence, and the strange creatures that teach him language and supplicate themselves to him (humans).

And so, when an ambitious god from the south–the Raven, of the eponymous tower–starts waging war and amassing power against the gods of Ard Vustika, the Strength and Patience of the Hill is finally moved to do something.

In between that time and Eolo’s time, the Raven has become (or is perceived to be) one of the world’s most powerful gods. Ruling over Iraden, the people who follow the Raven and the Silent Forest gods have grown prosperous. Meanwhile, the Strength and Patience of the Hill ponders its fate, and watches, and thinks.

The resulting narrative is, frankly, exhausting. There are no chapters in The Raven Tower; no true story breaks. Being privy to an ancient god’s meandering thoughts is fascinating and Leckie does a damn convincing job of creating an ever-patient sentient stone god, but it means that The Raven Tower is not an easy book to read. Personally, I found it hard to connect with the narrative, and while I admire Leckie’s dedication and obvious skill, I didn’t particularly like the reading experience.

Adding to this frustration was ultimately the lack of characterization and connection, especially to Eolo! Eolo, who should be our hero and the one character we should empathize with! Reflecting on his character, here are some of the things we know about Eolo: he is a man (though assigned female at birth), who is unwaveringly loyal to his friend Mawat (though Mawat treats him like garbage), and who unquestioningly does as he is bid. Eolo is similarly quiet and patient and observant, which is ostensibly why the Strength and Patience of the Hill becomes so fixated on him. Sadly, the result of the narrative, and Eolo’s lack of an individual personality or presence, means that the character is unconvincing, flat, and tepid.
Eolo is a tool to the Strength and Patience of the Hill and to readers, and more of a vehicle for the story and reader to insert themselves, rather than an actual full-bodied character. (Granted, this particular story is told by an observant stone, so this is likely the desired intent–again, your mileage may vary.)

Now, there are things that I absolutely loved–like the power of language and its implications for a God. I love the friendship between Myriad and the Strength and Patience of the Hill. I like the betrayals upon betrayals, and the ultimate deaths of certain characters at the novel’s climax. I love the convincing job Leckie does with crafting the voice of the Strength and Patience of the Hill… I just kind of hated reading it, and was entirely disconnected from every other character in the tale. To quote the Myriad:

The question is not, said the Myriad, whether distant events will affect us. This is not truly a question– they can and they will. Nor is the question how we will be affected. One can make any number of careful and informed guesses, but until events occur any predictions are subject to error, to the extent that one’s information, or one’s understanding, may be incomplete. […] The relevant question here, it seems to me, is not any of those things. It is, rather, Do you care?


Unfortunately, I did not. I did not care much at all.

Rating:

Ana: 9 – Damn Near Perfect

Thea: 6 – Good, but not without issues

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