I read (and enjoyed) Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy last (Ancillary Justice, the first was particularly amazing) so I was surprised to see she had written a fantasy novel. I enjoy both genres, and I know it isn’t unheard of for authors to switch between genres, but the Radch trilogy had AI and space travel … so definitely what I would consider on the harder side of sci-fi. The novel’s description was a bit vague so I was very pleasantly surprised when I realized that half of the novel was very much taking its cues from Hamlet, with the treacherous uncle, the heir that has been gone and returns to city with mysteries, and can trust only his loyal friend.
While that story was poetic and well-done, it’s the other half that I was even more interested in, especially as the connection between the two was not obvious in the beginning at all. In fact, it took a bit of time to find my footing in this as the novel starts with 2nd person narration (if you have read any of my other reviews, you will know this tends to be a distraction for me, and also was something that made The Broken Earth trilogy a slow start initially). However, the novel reveals the narrator rather quickly. Or at least, that a narrator exists and he is telling both his own story, taking the reader back several millennia, and the story of the novel’s present day. Eolo, the novel’s Horatio equivalent, has caught the narrator’s attention, for whatever inexplicable reason, and it is Eolo that is the “you” the story is addressed to.
The narrator is a god, and has to play by strict rules in how he speaks as he can only speak truth or he will drain his power as reality will bend to make his statement true. He must add disclaimers, such as “this is a story I have heard” rather than speaking in ways that might sound like he is claiming a fact or truth. The novel weaves back and forth between Mawat’s return home to situation that simply does not make sense, and an epic, long ranging story covering the history of surrounding kingdoms from the view of a somewhat silent and passive giant rock/god. He tells of other gods, the intricacies of their powers and their deals, and of his friendship with his loyal friend, the goddess named the Myriad. While the narrator is happy to stay where he is and hear the stories she brings back, the Myriad loves to be involved, travels with her worshipers, and otherwise likes to meddle in affairs, building allegiances and partnerships that are mutually beneficial for the participants.
Mawat’s kingdom worships its own god, the Raven, and he is part of the ruling family, next in line to be the Raven’s Lease. While being the Lease brings power, it comes with its own duties and responsibilities – the Raven has a physical manifestation referred to as the Instrument, which is an actual raven. Whenever the Instrument dies, the Lease must die as well as that self-sacrifice gives the god power. The Raven’s instrument has died, the new egg has not hatched, and his father has disappeared. Some think he simply shirked his duty but Mawat believes foul play, especially as his uncle has stepped in as heir rather than waiting for Mawat’s return.
The novel is incredibly well written, and I quite enjoyed seeing how she would follow and parallel her Hamlet retelling vs. where she would make changes. Additionally, she raises the question of how deserving Mawat truly is – does simply being better than his uncle truly make him worthy of leadership? What exactly is the kingdom built on, and while there is obviously something rotten in Denmark, did it truly only start recently, or have the foundations long been rotten?