The Raven Tower
by Ann Leckie
Orbit Books, 2019
Ann Leckie’s fantasy novel The Raven Tower came out last year and received immediate buzz because of its unique structure and voice. Told in second person (that is, an unseen narrator addresses the main character as “you” and tells this You everything the You thinks and does) it wobbles between the present and past, the latter aimed not so much at the You as the reader to give them background on the story’s plot. Was it successful in this? Yes.
The tagline promises “there will be a reckoning” leading the reader to expect Game of Thrones shenanigans, but honestly, the plot is more like that of a mystery. Iradon is a land ruled by a human council and a leader-priest who is the Lease, or protégé, of the country’s patron god Raven. The god Raven rules in the actual body of a raven, and when that bird body dies, the Lease must commit suicide as well to “pay” the Raven with the sacrifice of life so it can reincarnate in a new bird body. The role of Lease is hereditary, passing from father to son, and accountable to a human council and the female priesthood of another god, the Forest.
The trouble begins when the god Raven’s bird body dies, but instead of killing himself the human Lease disappears, and his brother is sworn into the position under a cloud of suspicion.
Maawat, the son of the vanished ruler, is summoned from the south where he has been defending the borders of the kingdom, but he arrives too late to be sworn in as Lease and so sees his uncle sitting on the throne. So there’s a Hamlet subplot as well, but with a twist: Maawat is dogmatic, stubborn, and hot-tempered, and can’t accept that his father did not do the correct thing and kill himself. His aide Eolo, a transgender man, is the You of the story the narrator tells it to, but Maawat, in a sense, is the real protagonist. Eolo tries to help him and discovers a conspiracy between the usurping uncle and some foreigners to do away with the Raven god forever. In spite of the simplicity of the characters and setting – think Bronze Age — the plot was surprisingly intricate, like a Greek tragedy, complete with chorus.
That chorus, and the unseen narrator talking to Eolo, turns out to be Strength and Patience of the Hill, whom I’ll call Sapoth for short. Sapoth is a god embodied in the form of a picturesque boulder in the forest north of Vastai, and here Leckie gives her tale another unique twist. There are many gods in Leckie’s world, perhaps too many to count, but most of them are small potatoes. They have alliances apparent and not so apparent, between the humans who worship them and between themselves. It’s an ecosystem of worship, for Leckie’s gods enjoy human offerings and are sustained by them, growing in power by them in some unexplained way. (That way is not said, but IMO it didn’t need to be said – this is fantasy.)
There are also many rules about what they can and cannot do, rules similar to the wizardly powers derived from true names in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series. God powers are in the main kinetic, and most of the time they perform small, carefully considered favors, such as guiding an arrow’s flight. In the one instance of war their powers are more extensive, goading wild animals to attack and creating warriors of wood. But such performances tax their powers greatly. They have a childlike mentality in that they consider consequences, but morality, ethics, and life and death do not occur to them. Their model is that of animism and the Japanese concept of kame or kami — imposing phenomena, or landscape features, which are divine simply because of their imposingness. I’ve never read a fantasy story with gods quite like Leckie’s. As an authorial creation, they are unique. These are the gods Earthsea might have had if it had not been anti-religion and pro-magic.
(The author also makes a subtle case to the reader, as Richard K. Morgan did in The Steel Remains, for the gods being disembodied alien intelligences, as they are presented as arriving on Leckie’s Not-Earth as fragments from a falling meteorite. The whole story might have been written as a what-if scenario for Bronze Age deities being actual existing entities for primitive human tribes. The mix of the divine with modern physical science also reminded me of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms… this novel had something of everything I’ve read in 2019.)
To the humans of the story the god’s existence is always in doubt. Only rarely do the gods speak clearly. It takes a lot of power to form human speech so most of the gods communicate by tokens or cards, using their kinetic powers to arrange them in patterns that communicate. The author implies ambiguity by showing how humans read meaning into this form of language where there is none, either because the god is sleeping, or is absent or dead. As in Richard Adams’ work, like Watership Down where farmers, cars, and trains are mythic and terrible to rabbits but mundane to the reader, there’s a sense of irony. The humans of the book are always questioning. At times they shifted toward the view that all of this was nonsense, only to be pulled back.
The book thus raised these questions: What is a god? What are the limits of its divine power and how does it help or harm humans? How does a god’s consciousness differ from a human’s, and what role does language play in it? Perhaps there was too much theorizing on these points, which periodically interrupted the narrative; but I did find them enjoyable and intelligent to read. The intellect behind the book always shone through, despite the simplicity, and sometimes naivete, of its style.
It also seems the author learned a lesson from feminist criticism of Earthsea. Sex and gender roles do not play parts in the plot either directly or indirectly, which I found very refreshing. In this it reminded me of some of Vonda McIntyre’s fiction, as well as Elizabeth Lynn’s: conscious, careful efforts by the author to create a plausible non-sexist society. Unlike them, though, Leckie doesn’t push a free love agenda, by which I mean a sexual milieu where everyone is at liberty to screw around with everyone else and no gets upset or jealous about it. There are consequences for sex in Leckie’s world, both traditional and untraditional. One character is pushed by her father to marry Maawat, and she refuses (but she is not ordered or forced to, as usually happens) and Eolo, as a transgender man, cannot serve in the army because born-women aren’t allowed to serve. There is also a story mentioned of a young man that pines for another young man, with no humans blinking an eye at it. These small mentions were effective at creating a believable, inclusive world, and I found them way less preachy that the free-love broad strokes.
But if there were looser gender roles in Vastai than Earthsea, there was also less grandeur. The Raven Tower doesn’t reach for stars like LeGuin did; there’s no resonance with myth. But then there isn’t any pesky cultural baggage or sex bashing either, and to give the author credit the various sexualities are presented as matter of fact and not exalted or idealized. Leckie’s civilization is a small, cozy one, taking place in a mid-sized town where silk fabric and honeyed dates are extravagant luxuries, and her earnest, simple prose didn’t wow me the way LeGuin’s did. But then Earthsea was based in the language of real world myth and poetry — and misogyny — which Leckie managed to wisely sidestep.
As the story progresses it becomes clear it is not a simple tale of good vs. evil. Twists and turns occur but there are no moral judgements on display, just the fallibility of the human spirit. The god Raven, initially a victim, is revealed as a pitiless aggressor, while the god Forest, which might have eco-friendly and female-centric in some other fantasy, is here an alien intelligence looking after its own interests. Maawat the prince, who is the story’s main character in spite of Eolo being the “You” and the one who figures things out, is selfish and hot-tempered, yet a calm and nonplussed leader. The ending comes in a rush, without the epic calamity the blurb seemed to call for, and then there’s one final twist to clean up the mess.
It was the final twist that exposed the story’s most visible flaw for me. Eolo should have been someone special to Sapoth to be worth all that narration time, yet he wasn’t. In the plot he served as the everyman character who witnesses the unfolding tragedy, like Hamlet’s Horatio. But Sapoth could have chosen any of the other major characters to serve as a sounding board. In other words, there was no resonance between Sapoth and Eolo. This was disappointing and left a loose end that would have been OK for me as a reader, but not as a writer. Eolo might have been depicted as the only one who could sense Sapoth, or Sapoth found something intriguing about Eolo, like his gender, which otherwise served no purpose in the plot.
That said, I did enjoy the book a lot, and even writing this I feel the enjoyment coming back. As much as I liked it, though, it’s not the kind of thing I would read again, because the solving of the mystery was such a great part of it. I would enthusiastically recommend it though. It’s a philosopher’s fantasy, a thoughtful and at times playful experiment of how ambiguities shape events, people, and societies. It’s something new.