The Raven Tower


Ann Leckie


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

December 09, 2019

nn Leckie burst upon the SF scene with her award-winning science fiction novel Ancillary Justice, the first book of her Imperial Radch trilogy...but could an SF author also write a decent fantasy novel? Of course she can, The Raven Tower is an excellent read. However, I rate it "only" four stars, because there are a couple of issues that annoyed me when reading it - more on that below.

What is good about The Raven Tower? Lots. The world building is well crafted. The characters have human motivations (as opposed to villains who are evil simply because the protagonist needs an antagonist). The plot contains surprises and tension. The story is strong enough to keep the pages turning.

This is the story of a prince named Mawat, and his right hand man, Eolo. Mawat returns from a campaign on the frontier because his father, the Raven's Lease, has gone missing. This is unthinkable. Iraden is protected by a god called The Raven, and it is through the Raven's Lease that the god makes his wishes known. If the Raven's Lease has died, then the Heir (Mawat) should be elevated to the bench. But apparently his father is still alive but in hiding, because Mawat has not been elevated. Mawat cannot believe these circumstances, but in his father's absence, his scheming uncle has taken the bench, and has not been struck dead by the Raven god for his presumption. Mawat frets and threatens, but Eolo investigates.

Because of Leckie's writing style, it takes a bit of time to understand what is going on in this world. Gradually we understand the limits of the god's powers. Slowly we realize the dynamics of who can rule the bench, and what constrains them. There is a threat from aboard, some genuinely creepy emissaries arrive from abroad, and they have magic and goals of their own. The main goal of all these characters is to rule the city which controls the mouth of waterway through which all the merchant ships must sail - control the city and you are wealthy and powerful. Eolo is not a strong dashing figure, indeed, he is so diminutive that mostly people dismiss him as inconsequential. But Eolo has courage, and he has an active brain, and as he investigates, we learn what is going on. Interesting.

I am sure it is just coincidence, but it seems I have been reading several novels recently that feature actual gods who walk among us: Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson, The Divine Cities trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Gates of the World series by K. M. McKinley, Redemption's Blade by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and, of course, American Gods by Neil Gaiman. All of these books were excellent, though The Raven Tower is unique in that the god is an immobile rock (though it took me a while to realize this). I suppose the idea of gods-among-men isn't new, when I was a child I was fascinated by the illustrated books of Greek Mythology and Norse Mythology - frankly, I am surprised both of those books are still in print, I must have read them 50 years ago!

If a novel this good, why do I only give The Raven Tower four stars? My biggest frustration is that half of the novel is written in the second person. Leckie tells us that you did this, and you did that. You said this, because you felt that. I hate that format. I rarely find second-person writing to be an enjoyable read. (I can't say I never like second person, because I just remembered that Ted Chiang's The Story of Your Life is written in second person, and that is one flat-out impressive piece of wonderful writing.) The half of The Raven Tower written in second person would have worked even better as a third or first person.

My other complaint about this novel is that there are two separate threads told in parallel, but for the longest time, the two story arcs don't have anything to do with each other. One story-line covers an immense span of history (eons!). describing what it is like to be an immortal god (even if you are just a big rock), and while this is interesting enough, it has nothing to do with the human drama occuring in the competing story strand. Not until very late in the novel do these threads merge into one plot, but it takes a quite a while to get there.

Like all great fantasy novels, The Raven Tower has a map at the beginning of the book. Unfortunately, the story continually refers to places that do not appear on the map. I kept turning back to that map to get a sense of place, but frequently the location described in the writing was not drawn on the map. Why not?

Leckie is a great writer, The Raven Tower is certainly worth a read. But if you can read only one book by Ann Leckie, read Ancillary Justice.