After four books set among the stars, Ann Leckie’s latest is set firmly in the realm of fantasy.
The Raven Tower is an epic fantasy told from the perspective a mysterious god overlooking the dramatic events unfolding in the country of Iraden and its port city of Vastai. Across the water lies Vastai’s sister-city Ard Vusktia; both are protected by the powerful god known as the Raven, whose will is enacted by the Raven’s Lease, a human who is granted power by the Raven in exchange for their life when the Raven’s Instrument—the bird the god speaks through—dies.
Mawat, a soldier of Iraden, has been groomed his whole life to take up the Raven’s Lease, endlessly preparing for the day his father takes his own life at the passing of the current Instrument. Yet when it finally happens, and Mawat hurries back to Vastai with his aid, Eolo, he encounters a betrayal. His uncle Hibal sits the throne as the new Raven’s Lease—an apparently impossible feat without the blessing of the Raven himself—and informs Mawat that his father fled when the Instrument died, forsaking his duty to take his own life. Hibal claims to have been chosen to take the bench in Mawat’s absence, despite the fact that he was only days away. As Mawat flies into a rage, it falls to the the faithful Eolo to figure out what lies behind this suspicious turn of events.
From the first page, The Raven Tower distinguishes itself through its narration. While the plot revolves around Mawat and the mystery of his father and legacy, and the protagonist is Eolo working to uncover the truth, the narrator is in fact, neither of them. The novel unfolds through the the ancient eyes of a god known simply as The Strength and Patience of the Hill, who unspools a tale of godhood and mortality, familial plots and political maneuvering.
Moreover, through the Hill, parts of the story unfold in second person narration, as the god tries desperately to speak through the stones to make himself heard by Eolo. The effect is initially distancing, but as the Hill goes on to tell of his own experiences of existence, and of the eons in which he has observed the changing world around him, readers are brought into the immediacy of first person.
The book swings back and forth between these two modes of storytelling: from moments of quiet observation as the Hill watches Eolo doing his best to uncover what’s rotten in Iraden, to the telling of ancient lore, as the Hill walks the reader through this long life story and his memories of a world transformed through the achievements of god and man. We are also present to hear the Hill’ private musings; he is given to pondering the nature of godhood, the powers of deities, and the symbiosis between gods and worshippers necessary to create change. While these two threads start out on opposite tracks, they ultimately converge in a truly epic conclusion—and a definitive one; this relatively slim novel is a wholly satisfying standalone.
Award-winner Leckie proves as adept at worldbuilding as ever—the setting and characters of The Raven Tower are as rich as any we encountered in Imperial Radch space—but it is the mode of narration that truly distinguishes her first novel-length foray into fantasy. Much like Hamlet, from which The Raven Tower draws clear inspiration, Leckie’s is a story filled with complicated, very human people, as well as the forces that move around them, guiding them ever so slightly toward choices both good and bad.
Interrogating the tenants of a whole new genre, Leckie brings to The Raven Tower the same energy, skewed perspective, and original worldbuilding that made her science fiction such a success. If the pacing seems a little slow at the start, don’t forget that this is a tale told by a patient and ancient god. It may take a little while for the stone to start rolling downhill, but once it does, there’s no stopping it.