Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Leckie's foray into fantasy delivers on mythology and worldbuilding, told through a distinctly non-human lens.

Cover design by Lauren Panepinto
Image by Arcangel Images
Ah, ravens. They're smart, they're beaky, they come in murders, and many in our world are better Londoners than I am. They're also the subject of more than their share of both folklore and, through that, fantasy interest. Whether they're harbingers of death, guides to the spirit world, speakers of prophecy and truth or otherworldly tricksters, there's a lot of mileage in these feathery next-level dinosaurs. Now, in Ann Leckie's first novel-length foray into fantasy, a raven god is front and centre, alongside a cast whose human members often play second fiddle to their divine counterparts.

Many readers will be familiar with Leckie for her science fiction work: the superlatively brilliant Ancillary Justice, its sequels, and the same-universe standalone Provenance. On the surface, The Raven Tower is a very different book. We find ourselves in Vastai, a low-tech, small-scale polity, whose citizens fear and worship the forest, envy the better harbour of their neighbour (in one timeline, at least) and have come to rely on the blessings of a specific god to keep their town flourishing. Gone are the spaceships and corpse soldiers, but the presence of the gods themselves - who are very much real in this world, and regularly appear to humans - means that The Raven Tower feels just as connected with non-human intelligences as Leckie's previous works, and just as accomplished at giving those intelligences believable motivations and voices.

(The rest of the review has spoilers for a very early reveal. If you want to go into the Raven Tower without forewarning, stop reading here - or come back once you're 5% of the way in and know what I'm talking about!)

The Raven Tower leans into its myth-heavy, language-driven setting, not least by setting up a second person narrative: a mysterious voice who addresses the ostensible protagonist, Eolo, as if telling his own story to him. In the opening scenes, this narrator is present but not directly involved in the action, and the voice's narration of these scene-setting events - in which Eolo's companion Mawat, the heir to the Raven Tower, returns to witness the death of his father - feels oddly full of conjecture and uncertainty, as it reflects both Eolo's uncertainty and the voice's own unfamiliarity with him. This uncertainty is a jarring place to start a story, but it's worth the effort as we establish the parameters of the world of Vastai: a land ruled not by a monarch but by a "lease", a hereditary ruler given powers and privileges by their Raven god, but compelled to sacrifice themselves when the Raven's "instrument" (their animal body) dies. Mawat, who has been brought up expecting to ascend on his father's intentionally premature death, arrives back to instead learn that his father appears to have fled the tower and his uncle has taken on the Lease's position instead. This should be impossible, based on how the Raven has always operated, and Mawat's reaction to the discovery sets in motion a chain of events that threaten the very foundations on which the Tower and its inhabitants stand.

It very quickly becomes clear, however, that this is not just Eolo's story, but that of our narrator - and that our narrator is not, as it initially seems, a human servant in the Raven Lease's employ, but a god in their own right. Most often referred to as The Strength and Patience of the Hill (though, for the sake of simplicity and help anyone still skimming while hoping to not get too spoiled, I'll keep referring to them as "the narrator"), the character addressing us is revealed to be immeasurably old, potentially very powerful, and has sat unmoved through geological ages of change and comparatively recently found themselves interacting with humans. Existing fans of Leckie's work will find it easy to believe in her ability to turn this narrator - a large rock who hates almost all change on principle - into the novel's most compelling character. From here on out, the second-person adventures of Eolo and the humans of Vastai are interspersed with the narrator's history and their interpretations of the events of the present. In Leckie's world, gods gain power from human worship and offerings, and are able to change reality using this power - but they must be careful not to deplete their own strength in doing so. The risk a god of any size faces is how to ensure they can sufficiently impress and meet the demands of their worshippers - and, perhaps, see off challenges from rival gods in the process - while not giving up too much of themselves in the process, or making promises that force them into doing so in future.

What the narrator's identity does mean is that the characterisation and interactions of the human characters in the "present" sections are deliberately viewed through a lens of distance and opaqueness. It takes some considerable time to gain an understanding on Eolo beyond what the narrator guesses about him at the start of the tale, plus a few external observations which make it clear that he is a trans male character; many of the other human characters are given only hints of characterisation through understated or indirect means. While this is entirely in keeping with the position of the narrator and their understanding of humans (and selective interest in what makes them interesting), it did make the start of the novel slower and more challenging to get into than I expected. Leckie is so good at portraying human modes of affection and care (even when they're being filtered through non-human characters like Breq) that it's hard not to miss that here, but the comparative lack of focus on relationships and connection in the novel's early stages means that the connections that do develop on the page - not least that between the narrator and The Myriad, a fellow god who enjoys manifesting as a cloud of mosquitoes - are that much more precious and interesting.

As you'd expect from an author with Leckie's skills, the plotting, especially the weaving together of the past and present narratives, is spectacular. Central to this are the twin mysteries of the book's past and present: what's going on with that whole Raven Lease thing, and, somehow more interestingly, how did a rock whose sole previous experience with movement was "hover off the ground by a foot for a few minutes" apparently travel hundreds of miles to become linked with the Raven Tower? Again, likely because of the nature of the narrator, it was the human plotline that took longer to warm up for me, but once it does it's pretty great, setting up a culture whose elites are intricately tied to gods whose reality and power has never been questioned. Of particular note is the delegation from Xulah, a trio of foreigners who take an early interest in Eolo but clearly have their own agenda at play, involving their own snake god and Vastai's larger neighbour Ard Vustika. However - and given the banal content of some of these scenes, I can't quite believe this is true - it was the elements from the narrator's past that I found myself waiting for, time and time again. This means, just to be entirely clear, that I was comparatively speeding through sections on political intrigue and protest in order to get back to the narrator's time waiting out a mini ice age or establishing god-specific language for B vitamins. The characterisation is just that good.

Ann Leckie's last couple of books have been on the comfort reading side for me, and on a personal level, I did miss that from The Raven Tower. However, that should in no way be taken as a criticism of what it does deliver. The elements that make The Raven Tower dense and alien and unsettling are also what makes it so good, and if you give it time and attention, this is an immensely rewarding read. I'll be eagerly watching the skies for Leckie's next book, and giving any giant rotating stones and smart-looking ravens in my future the respect they clearly require.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 I have never been so interested in all-powerful sentient rocks

Penalties: -1 It's initially hard to get past the lack of connection with human characters

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.

Reference: Leckie, Ann. The Raven Tower [Orbit, 2019].