The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

The Raven Tower Cover

Publishers: Orbit and Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 26 February 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 12 hours and 1 Minute

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 Stars

The bestselling author of the Imperial Radch series, Ann Leckie, presents her first foray into fantasy fiction with The Raven Tower, an intriguing fantasy read that I have been looking forward to for a while, and which attempts something new and different in its presentation.

The Raven Tower is set in a world filled with gods whose power and abilities can be gifted to humans in exchange for worship and offerings.  For centuries, a powerful god known as the Raven has ruled over the rich kingdom of Iraden, offering protection and prosperity from atop a tower in the city of Vastai.  The human ruler of all of Iraden is known as the Raven’s Lease and has been chosen by the Raven to bear his power and enact the god’s will.  However, this power comes at a price, as each Lease must sacrifice himself to the Raven in order to keep the god strong and Iraden safe.

When Eolo and his lord, Mawat, heir to the Raven’s Lease, return to Vastai, they find the city in chaos.  Mawat’s father, the former Lease, went missing just before he was required to pay the Raven’s price.  In his place, Mawat’s uncle, Hibal, has taken the throne and has been named the new Raven’s Lease.  Determined to find out what happened to the former Lease and reclaim the throne for his master, Eolo attempts to uncover the many secrets of Vastai.  But as Eolo investigates he discovers that something ancient and mysterious is concealed within the Raven’s Tower: a secret from Iraden’s past that the Raven has kept hidden for centuries.  It is clear there will be a reckoning, but is Eolo ready to pay the price?

To be honest, I found that The Raven Tower was a very challenging book to critically examine and assign an overall rating for.  Before I had even started reading it, I saw that a number of other reviewers had noted that had great difficulty with this book, mainly due to the author’s unique way of narrating the story.  As a result, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of The Raven Tower, narrated by Adjoa Andoh, in the hopes that this would make it easier for me to follow along.  The audiobook version of the book is around 12 hours long, and I managed to get through it in around a week.  While I did also experience some issues with the way the book was set out, I actually began to appreciate this unique format the more that I stuck with the story, and this turned out to be a really enjoyable piece of fantasy fiction.

For this book, Leckie chose to utilise a noticeably different second person limited narration format to tell her story.  The story is told by a god known as the Strength and Patience of the Hill, who not only tells the main story in Vastai, specifically focusing on the character Eolo, but who also describes all the events of its own life that led up to this period of time.  This god has a very unique way of speaking that impacts how the Vastai story is told.  In particular, the god constantly describes what Eolo is doing, but, at the same time, it has no idea of what is going on inside Eolo’s head.  As a result, it makes very generic statements and guesses about Eolo’s memories, state of mind or thought process.  Take for example the following line, said as Eolo explores the docks near the tower: “I don’t think you grew up near the sea, and so you likely knew very little about boats or tides.”  Having this being make guesses about the protagonist’s thoughts or feelings is a little unusual, and I was very confused about why the author had written her book this way, and for a large portion of the book I really thought that it would have made more sense to have a more traditional narrator system.  However, as I read deeper into the story, it became a whole lot clearer why Leckie had set her story out in this way, and I was able to really appreciate it use.

As the book progresses, the two halves of the story start to come together.  Taken separately, both parts of the story are fairly interesting.  The storyline focusing on Eolo and the mystery surrounding the Raven’s Lease is fairly intriguing mystery filled with politics, murder, mystery and the fate of an entire nation.  The second storyline, which looks at the backstory of the Strength and Patience of the Hill, helps build up Leckie’s new world while also explaining much about the book’s primary fantasy element, the gods, as well as the Raven’s rise to power.  While both these storylines are quite fascinating in their own right, when they start coming together in the later part of the book, it creates a much more complete and intense story.  The author’s use of the Strength and Patience of the Hill as the book’s primary narrator becomes a lot clearer, and I actually really liked how this unconventional narration was utilised.  I also really enjoyed the fantastic twists that occurred at the end of the book, and the author’s excellent lead-up to these events was really quite clever and subtle.  Overall, this turned into quite an amazing story, and I was very glad that I stuck with it and got all the way through.

One of the main things that I enjoyed about The Raven Tower was the interesting fantasy elements that Leckie utilised throughout her story, mostly shown in the form of the gods that inhabit this world.  The gods in this book are quite an interesting creation from Leckie, who has come up with a number of rules surrounding them, all of which is explored by the narrator.  In this world, the gods have a finite amount of power, which they gain from worship and which they lose by altering the world, either for their own benefit or in order to answer prayers.  The gods’ power is tied to their speech; anything they say as a fact, their power will act to make it so.  For example, if they say that an object will turn, then their powers will act to make it turn.  However, if the action they want to accomplish takes more power than they have access to, then they will die or become extremely weak.  As a result, the gods are forced to speak extremely carefully, lest they inadvertently make a command that will take way too much energy.  The gods, therefore, try to avoid absolutes in their conversations and have to use words such as “I think” or “I heard” to get around this.  Leckie consequently has to have her narrator, the Strength and Patience of the Hill, utilise this language throughout the entire book, as to the god addresses the main character Eolo (even if Eolo does not hear them).  That is why there are so many unusual language choices throughout the book, such as the recurring “Here is a story that I have heard”.  While these language choices did throw me at first, once I understood why it was happening, I got used it and I thought it was extremely creative and commendable that the author stuck with this throughout the entire story.

In addition to this use of language, Leckie spends considerable time exploring the limitations and abilities of the gods throughout her book.  Leckie uses all sorts of different narrative devices to showcase this, from the Strength and Patience of the Hill’s personal memories and experiments, conversations they have with other gods, as well as telling stories about other gods and how they utilise their powers (there is one particularly amusing story about a god-powered spear I liked).  It is clear that the author put a lot of thought into her universe’s gods and the abilities that they have, and the exploration of these ideas were some of my favourite parts of the book.  I was also extremely impressed with how Leckie was able to utilise these fantasy ideas so effectively in her story, and I liked the bearing that they had on both the plot and the way the book was written.

Another interesting aspect of The Raven Tower is the characters that the author has used within the story.  The main protagonist is Eolo, whose attempts to get to the bottom of the mysterious events in Vastai are a large focus in the book.  Eolo is a pretty boss protagonist, able to disguise his intelligence and cunning behind an ignorant peasant facade, while quickly unravelling what has occurred in the city and then playing the politics to get the best result for her master.  Eolo is actually a transgender character, and I was really impressed with how well-written this part of the character’s identity was, and with how it was explored within the book.  In addition to Eolo, there are also several other intriguing characters used throughout the book.  Once you get the hang of its speech pattern, the Strength and Patience of the Hill is a pretty good narrator, and I found the god’s backstory and way of seeing the world to be incredibly intriguing.  I quite liked the character of Tikaz, who serves as one of the main female characters in the book, as well as Eolo’s potential love interest.  Tikaz is fleshed out incredibly well, and I loved the various interactions that she has with Eolo.  The book’s main villain, Hibal, is suitably evil and conniving, and he even has a pair of creepy twins serving as his henchmen.

I need to point out the fantastic job Leckie did coming up with one of the main characters in the book, Mawat.  Mawat is the heir to the Raven’s Lease, who finds his position usurped by his uncle.  However, rather than write him as a noble character we are supposed to feel sympathy for, Mawat immediately has a temper tantrum and spends the rest of the book acting as an unreasonable child, completely ignoring Eolo’s advice and even attacking his loyal servant whenever he hears something he does not like.  While a large amount of this is necessary for the story, I liked the reversal of the noble disenfranchised heir trope that is often utilised in fantasy, and instead we are left with a more complex character.

I quite liked the audiobook format of The Raven Tower and found it to be a really great way to enjoy this book.  I definitely think it helped me follow the plot and navigate the different narrative devices of this book, and I absorbed more information about Leckie’s fantasy elements.  I quite enjoyed Adjoa Andoh’s narration throughout the book and thought their voice was perfect for the mysterious and wise Strength and Patience of the Hill, who narrated most of the text.  I especially liked how Andoh was able convey the Strength and Patience of the Hill’s anger at certain key points of the book and to make the god’s voice quite menacing.  Apart from the Strength and Patience of the Hill, the other character voices throughout The Raven Tower were fairly distinctive and matched the personalities of the characters quite well.  I was especially fond of the fitting accents she assigned to some of the human characters, such as Tikaz or the god known as the Myriad.  Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers check out the audiobook format of The Raven Tower, as it may prove to be an easier way to enjoy this intricate story.

As I mentioned above, I had a hard time giving this book an overall rating.  When I first started reading it and I encountered the strange narration style for the first section of the book, I thought I might have to give it a low score.  However, once I started to get more into the story and the lore behind the gods of this world was explained in some detail, I ended up changing my score to something closer to 4 out of 5 stars.  This reflected my appreciation of Leckie’s inventiveness, but also had a few demerits due to the slow start and issues I had getting into the story.  However, I ended up changing this to a 4.25 out of 5 stars in the end, once I appreciated how the two separate storylines came together and that superb ending.  As a result, I would highly recommend The Raven Tower to fantasy readers, and I encourage people to see past the issues at the start of the book.  Leckie is an outstanding author, and her first foray into fantasy featured some unique elements that turned The Raven Tower into one of the most distinctive and clever reads of 2019.  The Raven Tower works incredibly well as a stand-alone book, but if the author decides to return to this world in the future I would be extremely curious to see where she takes the story next.