If there’s one thing one can say for sure about Ann Leckie, it’s that so far in her career she shows no signs of settling into a rut. All her novels have been ambitious in their own separate ways, and they’ve played with gender, language and identity to fruitful, thought-provoking ends. (Let’s be honest, I’m a fan.) That ambition continues to show in The Raven Tower, her first novel-length published fantasy—and shows itself in some interesting, unconventional narrative choices.
The Raven Tower is told from the point of view of a god. A god who’s a rock, we eventually learn, just as we eventually learn that the people who prayed to this god referred to it as “Strength and Patience.” But—not exactly from its point of view. Or not entirely. The novel divides itself into two chronological strands. We’ll call one the present, and one the past. In the past—a long past, a past that begins in the deep time of geology—Strength and Patience tells its own story, in its own voice. Strength and Patience is a patient, meditative sort of being. It has time.
(There are a lot of gods in this world. Some are small. Some are large. Their origins and nature seem to be diverse, but they draw power from human offerings—among, perhaps, other things—and can shape the world through their speech. But if they speak something untrue, or impossible, or something that takes more power than they possess to make true, then speaking thus may result in their death.)
In the present, though, Strength and Patience speaks to the novel’s main character, and describes his actions as he carries them out, guessing at his thoughts and emotions. So we see Eolo, aide to Mawat—heir to the ruler of Iraden—from the outside, and this part of the novel comes to us with all the immediacy and force of the second-person voice: You. In the hands of a less talented and less thoughtful writer, this might well seem jarring. But in Leckie’s? In Leckie’s hands it feels seamless, and draws attention to the narrator’s subjectivity and potential unreliability: As the you of the narrative cannot reveal Eolo’s interiority, except through his actions, we become aware in parallel that there are things the I of the narrative is definitely not saying.
Strength and Patience tells us about the past, a measured, compelling revelation of its history up until the point where it became involved in a war between the gods of a place called Ard Vusktia and another god called the Raven of Iraden. But the present-day narrative of The Raven Tower takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Iraden is, we are told, protected by the Raven. The Raven’s Lease rules the people—but the Lease is pledged to offer his life to the Raven upon the death of the Raven’s Instrument, through which the god speaks. It is unthinkable that a Lease should default upon his responsibilities, but when Eolo accompanies Mawat, the Lease’s Heir, to Vastai, they learn that this is exactly what Mawat’s father seems to have done. Mawat’s uncle has been elevated to the Lease’s seat in Mawat’s absence, and in the absence of Mawat’s father, and Mawat cannot believe—or accept—that this has happened. While he storms about, sulking, raging, and making a public nuisance of his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, Eolo begins to investigate. And what Eolo uncovers shakes the roots of his world.
It’s easy to forget that gods and humans may not have the same goals.
The Raven Tower is an enormously compelling novel. It may draw inspiration from Hamlet, but while it uses much of Hamlet’s pattern, the active presence of gods in the narrative—and the fact those gods have their own stories, wants, and goals—means it reweaves the fabric of Shakespeare’s play into cloth of a different colour entirely. Mawat is a clear Hamlet-analogue, with Eolo as a Horatio—a trans man, a countryman rather than a townsman—but Eolo is more than Horatio’s mirror and Mawat’s foil. Just as Tikaz, the Ophelia-figure, is much more than a doomed, lovelorn mad damsel. Leckie’s worldbuilding is deep and thorough, showing us the edges of a broad, rich, complicated world, and her characters are fascinating. (Especially the gods.)
I didn’t love The Raven Tower the way I loved Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy. It’s a very different book, striking in very different ways. But it is striking in ways I deeply appreciate. I admire it. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Raven Tower is available from Orbit.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Her Sleeps With Monsters column here at Tor.com was nominated for the BSFA Best Nonfiction Award in 2019. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.