Everything of Ann Leckie’s that I have read previously – which is basically every novel she’s published – has been in one form or another, a kind of Space Opera. While Provenance may have had more of a political bent than the more military-minded Imperial Radch books, Ann Leckie has positively been cemented into my mind as very much an ’In Spaaace’ kind of author. Her first fantasy novel – The Raven Tower – has changed this. Leckie has delivered something that is very, very Hamlet in flavour, but much more stylistically adventurous, and it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.
Like Hamlet, the Raven Tower starts with a young heir returning to his seat after a long absence, only to find himself usurped by his uncle – and most of kingdom’s advisors appear complicit. But things in Iraden are a little more complex than those in Denmark. To start with, the young heir, Mawat, isn’t exactly a prince or a king in waiting, per se. Instead, the Iradeni ruler is referred to as the Lease, and they also serve as a sacrifice to the Raven God. This God communicates with its followers through a carefully raised living raven known as the Instrument, and when it passes on, the Lease is meant to sacrifice themselves to ensure the God can safely possess a new vessel. But it appears that Mawat’s father has gone AWOL and may not have allowed himself to be sacrificed, and Mawat doesn’t seem to belive that his uncle Hibal can be trusted with everyone’s best interests. And if the Raven cannot be appeased, Iraden may not remain secure.
But Marat himself is not the main focus of the story. Instead, the narrator is none other than a God who has happened to have taken a particular interest in the affairs of Iraden. One half of the narrative takes the form of this God addressing the protagonist directly – who, as it turns out, is not actually Mawat, but his aid de camp, Eolo. Eolo himself is mostly oblivious to the God’s presence and the narrative takes on a very omnipresent feel as a result. Like almost everything written in the second person, this can feel very unnatural to start with – but if you keep with it, it does end up feeling right for a God.
The second narrative, initially starting well away from the drama unfolding in Iraden, is the history of the narrator themself; all the way from when they first exhibited divine awareness, to the current day, where they’re deeply invested in the affairs of The Raven. I’m keeping the finer details of the second narrative deliberately sparse, as half the enjoyment of The Raven Tower is trying to link how the backstory of the protagonist goes together with modern-day Mawat’s predicament, and why this has to be observed not from his vantage point, but from that of his man Horatio?
As for how well the merging of these two threads is managed, I’m of the opinion it gets better as the book goes along. The human-centric story is slow to get moving, while there is initially very little tying the God-centric side of affairs to the goings-on in Iraden. This then changes abruptly at the halfway mark, and you start to be able to see the cogs in the clockwork. The relationship between the gods and mortals becomes clearer; Mawat’s Hamlet style sulk starts to lift and he becomes a more effective character, and Eolo starts showing inner depths that makes it clearer why he’s the one the God is following after all.
One thing that can be said though – no matter how viciously the affairs of men play out, the Gods can do worse. So, so much worse.
So if you are willing to read through a slow-paced start, and give yourself room to adjust to the second person narrative; or if you really enjoy putting all the puzzle pieces together just so, The Raven Tower delivers a huge payoff. I was pleasantly surprised myself and now rank this as my favourite of Ann Leckie’s books. I don’t know if there’s much more narrative space left after the conclusion to write another book in this world, but if she’s willing to try her hand at more fantasy, I’ll be reading it.