Author Ann Leckie may not be the first to explore the consequences of ruling sentient beings and dueling AIs within a book, though her award-winning sci-fi novel Ancillary Justice and its sequels suggested there were still new storytelling ideas in the conceit. For instance, what if that dystopian-future lens was applied to the fantasy genre?
The answer comes in Leckie’s newest book The Raven Tower that focuses on mysterious gods and the kingdoms they watch over. It’s a challenging first installment that will capture the interest of fantasy nerds if they can grasp all of this world’s moving parts—including some that the gods themselves don’t fully understand.
The Raven Tower follows our main character Eolo, an aide of the royal heir Mawat, as they both return to Mawat’s kingdom of Iraden. Mawat’s father is what’s known as the Raven’s Lease, the human ruler of the kingdom that’s guarded by the Raven god. In a plot straight out of the classic Hamlet, Eolo and Mawat return home to find Hibal, Mawat’s uncle, to be the new Raven’s Lease after Mawat’s father mysteriously disappeared.
The hot-headed Mawat accuses Hibal of foul-play and vows to take his rightful place as the Raven’s Lease. Eolo, unsure yet matter-of-fact and fiercely loyal to Mawat, is left to broker relationships between the brooding heir and the royal court as well as help solve the mystery of the disappearance of Mawat’s father.
The reader finds all of this out as if they were Eolo through the novel’s narrator, an unnamed “stone god” speaking in second person. Separately, this god also tells the story of its own birth and the birth of this fantasy universe, where big and small gods exist and where language holds immense power.
Not only are the gods of this world left to discover its rules and inner workings on their own, but they also must be careful what they say. Gods cannot speak falsehoods into the world, so the details (or lack thereof) of the truths they tell can have serious consequences for humans and gods alike.
The action and political intrigue in Eolo’s story was most compelling to me, despite being familiar.
Leckie impressively weaves the two alternating timelines together. It isn’t immediately clear how or when Eolo and the rock god will cross paths, but when they do, it sheds some light on the god’s true intentions and the fate of Eolo and Iraden as a whole. The rock god isn’t simply speaking to Eolo as a narrator of his life, but rather as an important piece to his life’s puzzle that Eolo will have to place in the right spot in order to (potentially) save the kingdom from total destruction.
However, the god’s story and Eolo’s story will appeal to two different readers. The god spends much of its time gaining awareness and philosophizing on the inner workings and moralities of the world, which makes for a slow read. Eolo’s story is much more fast-paced and, arguably, more interesting for those who look to plot to drive a narrative forward. Those distinctly different paces made it difficult for me to invest too much emotion into either timeline, and it will likely leave some readers feeling disconnected throughout the novel.
The action and political intrigue in Eolo’s story was most compelling to me despite this part of the plot feeling familiar. Leckie derives a lot from Hamlet, even including characters that mirror the dynamic duo Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Fans of Lord of the Rings will be intrigued to see Eolo and Mawat make use of a strange pendant that, when held, makes the holder basically invisible to others around them (but without the eye of Sauron hovering over them). While much of Eolo’s and Mawat’s story hinge upon themes that have been explored before, Leckie throws in some unique elements like that, in addition to her own world-building and lore, make The Raven Tower feel fresh in more ways than one.
Leckie also plays with gender through Eolo’s character, who’s referred to most of the time as “him” or “he” but eventually gets called out as actually being a girl. Eolo denies being a woman, although the character’s gender is never explicitly explained (and sexuality never even uttered). The inclusion of a transgender main character is refreshing, particularly in a fantasy novel, and I hope Leckie develops Eolo’s character and sense of self even further in future installments.
The Raven Tower ends on a cliffhanger that will only generate anticipation for any possible sequel for readers who quickly take to the intricacies of this new fantasy world. Eolo’s story and the obvious plot of The Raven Tower are only one half of the broader narrative, and the speculative nature of the stone god’s story may alienate some. Nevertheless, The Raven Tower takes Eolo and the stone god to many strange places, and undoubtedly fans of Ancillary Justice and Leckie’s writing style will want to come along for the ride.
The Raven Tower is published by Orbit, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, and will be available February 26, 2019.
Listing image by Orbit