|Jacket design by Lauren Panepinto|
Orbit, 28 February 2019
I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of The Raven Tower.
THERE. WILL. BE. A. RECKONING.
My First Law of Book Blogging is that the best books, the ones that really wow me, that keep me awake till the small hours and have me tired on my train the next day, are the hardest to review. There are lots reasons for this, sometimes different ones for different books. Sometimes the book is so good I'm just speechless. Sometimes the book simply is the best expression of itself. There's probably a way to express this mathematically but for me it comes down to, what can I say about this that doesn't actually take away from the unique, wonderful edifice the author has made?
That is certainly true of The Raven Tower, but as if if things weren't already tricky enough, Ann Leckie also does things in the book.
She does things to her protagonists.
She does things to her setting.
She does things to the reader.
And frankly, she does things to the genre. To be too clear about these things would reduce the impact of the book in ways that the term "spoiler" doesn't even begin to capture. So I have to be very circumspect now, and so this is a hard review to write, but I have to try because I do want you to read this book.
The first thing to say is, I think, that The Raven Tower is not at all what it seems.
The package may appear familiar. There is a land - Iraden - with a ruler ("the Raven's Lease") bound to die for his god. The heir, Mawat, hurries home to take his father's place. There are enemy armies in the South, beyond the Silent Forest, and strangers in the capital about who knows what business. Iraden's gods (the Raven, the Silent) have turned elusive. We even have a map, showing a vaguely Mediterranean-like geography, with the capital city of Iraden, Vastia, sited on the channel where the Shoulder Sea connects with the Northern Ocean.
Almost as the story begins, however, Leckie begins to do her things.
Who, exactly is, narrating? Not Mawat or his lieutenant, Eolo. Rather, the narrator seems to be addressing them (specifically, Eolo.) "I first saw you" the book begins "when you rode out of the forest". The story continues to be told to "you", despite the fact that "you" are often the subject of it. It's as if the narrator is, at some later time, recounting what he saw and inferred of Eolo's reactions, thoughts and history. Not entirely omniscient, but privy to a great deal of information, this narrator is also aware of other characters, other events - but what they choose to tell is selective.
So - and I think it's safe to be plain about this - Leckie is doing is adopting a very unusual viewpoint. In places it's not quite first person (when the narrator tells their own history) in others it's not quite second person, and indeed when they are telling Eolo about the doings of some other individual, it becomes not quite third person either. That sounds very tricksy and clever but it really isn't, I think it reads very naturally but it does give the whole book an air of distance, a very particular tone. This narrator has a clear and reasoned style, and the way Leckie tells the story enables many issues to be addressed - reasoned over, debated - which would often be ignored in fantasy.
For example, a central theme here - unsurprisingly, given the importance of those elusive gods - is how gods can do what they do, what their limits are, and what dangers they face. A god may "speak something true", altering the universe, but had better be careful that he, she or they can back up their statement or they risk draining their power and ceasing to be. And that takes us to the nature of language, what can be said and what can't. All things absolutely germane to the story being told here, which may begin with a blast on the horn of epic fantasy, as it were, the Kingdom in peril and all that - promising politics, backstabbing and treason - but gradually transitions to something much more complicated, less a horn solo than a fugue exploring variations on the nature of reality, the long term - and I really mean, long term - history of the land, the development of trade and above all, the interconnectedness of things.
Here we see the development of life, the arrival of humankind, the gradual evolution of interdependence between peoples, nations and gods and the drive for power. Leckie is actually using an enormous canvas, and the story she's telling is far from straightforward. Indeed, exactly what story she is telling is one of those things I don't want to say too much about. I will just say that while that horn of epic fantasy never falls completely silent, by the end of the book it's as though it has fallen into the hands of quite different musicians and when I realised what had happened I gasped at what Leckie had actually done.
(Sorry if that sounds convoluted but I am trying to give an impression of this book without telling you any secrets).
The Raven Tower is a breathtaking achievement, really, a really distinctive book that simply demands to be read. Marat and Eolo are colourful, engaging characters and Leckie realises them well, rooting their backgrounds in the reality of the world she's created (Mawat a born leader but headstrong, worrying the nobles that he might take after his domineering father; Eolo with his own secrets). That world benefits from the "deep time" perspective we're privy to - it's a fantasy world with fossils. A place where shallow tropical seas have converted to limestone hills. Where the nutritional needs of humans are investigated by gods in scientific terms alongside demands for blood sacrifice. This feels like a real world where things work, for the most part, as you'd expect, and where they can be understood. It's a world where things develop, rather than being stuck for thousands of years in a sort-of Iron Age.
Reading this book felt at times as though Leckie was reconstructing fantasy itself while she span her story, as though she was reconstructing it by spinning her story. I thought that was brilliant though I'd expect some will be uneasy with what she's doing - change can be difficult. It's also great fun and in places - especially the dry dialogues between The Myriad and The Strength and patience of the Hill - (two of the other gods encountered here) actually rather funny and even touching, as a friendship builds over literally millions of years.
I really can't recommend this strongly enough. You just have to read it.