The jacket description of The Raven Tower by Anne Leckie describes your typical fantasy setting. There’s a medieval country at war, a usurped throne and a lowborn hero who rises to meet his destiny. We’ve all read a story by that description at one point or another and so I picked it up, fully expecting to be walking down the well trodden narrative path that I’d seen so many times before.
In some ways I was right, but I was wrong in just as many.
Vastai, the capital city of a large country known as Iraden, is ruled by a god named the Raven and his Lease. The Lease speaks for the Raven and is charged with governorship of Iraden, but there is a catch. The Lease must sacrifice himself to the god when the Raven’s vessel dies, granting him even more power. This system is thrown on its head when Mawat, the Lease’s heir returns to the Raven’s Tower, only to find that his father is missing and someone else has taken his rightful place on the throne.
Now Mawat’s servant and friend, Eolo must navigate the treacherous waters of court politics, and find out the truth behind the Lease’s disappearance and why the God of Iraden has been so silent.
It’s classic as far as hooks go and this sort of plot rarely fails to be entertaining, even if it isn’t the most original premise in the world.
There is one aspect of The Raven Tower that is truly unique however, and that’s the perspective that the story is told from.
Most prose written today are in what’s called Third Person Limited, which is to say that the narrator of the story is not a character in the story, but is aware of everything physically happening in the story. They generally only follow one character and only have insight into the thoughts and feelings of that same character. Think Harry Potter or The Golden Compass.
The next most common is First Person, meaning that the point of view is limited to a single character – their thoughts and feelings, as well as anything they might be able to conceivably perceive. Think The Hunger Games or The Great Gatsby.
The Raven Tower has a single narrator, but alternates between first and second person, giving it a unique perspective. This is achieved by making the narrator a god, simultaneously granting it the ability the observe everything that happens to Eolo in perfect clarity, while also serving as an ideal conduit for the reader to receive a firsthand account of the world’s entire history. It can be disconcerting at first. I was actually pretty annoyed by it in the first few chapters, but it grew on me as time went on and I eventually learned to love it.
Eolo’s character is a little emotionally dry for my taste. Leckie does a great job flushing out his reasons for being so loyal to Mawat, but he doesn’t have much in way of motivation outside of that singular bond and can sometimes come across as very stiff.
That said, what the story lacks in emotional depth, it more than makes up for in world building and the ever turning machinations of court intrigue. There is only one true magic system in this fantasy series – that of the gods – but it is one of the most well constructed that I’ve ever encountered.
Reading about these gods reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. They felt real and flawed, the way gods of the oldest religions always do. Leckie represents them as thoughtful and cautious beings. They are interested in human affairs, but also detached. They can be mindful of the moment, but they also know how to patiently watch centuries pass.
One of the highest compliments that I know how to give a story is that it was never boring. Leckie’s writing is clever and often beautiful. She knows how to craft a landscape and is even better at crafting a folk tale. She knows exactly when and how to reveal a piece of information so that the mystery remains intact without you ever feeling like she’s wasting your time. Often she’ll tell you a piece of her world’s history and you’ll be so fascinated with the minutia of detail that she’s put into culture, politics and religion that you will only realize why it was relevant to current events at the very end. Then your mind will be awash with euphoria as you have the “Aha!” moment from the puzzle piece finally clicking into place.
It’s clear that the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke Award winning author is worthy of her throne. Reading The Raven Tower was an experience that I’ll never forget and I personally can’t wait for the saga to continue.
I hope you’ll check it out too,