Listen. A god is speaking.
My voice echoes through the stone of your master’s castle.
This castle where he finds his uncle on his father’s throne.
You want to help him. You cannot.
You are the only one who can hear me.
You will change the world.
As has been well established here before, I am a big fan of Ann Leckie’s fiction, and hugely enjoyed her science fiction trilogy. I’m also a fan of big, complex, political epic fantasy that uses the second person (or rather, of The Fifth Season, the only book I know of which fits that criteria). So Ann Leckie doing big, political epic fantasy in the second person? Sign me up!
The Raven Tower is a brilliant retelling of a classic story. Without giving too much about Leckie’s textual inspiration away, the contemporary plot follows the beats of that story almost exactly, while retooling them to give the women more agency and less unjust punishment, and with a focus not on the central character of the original but on one of the side-characters as a lens through which to follow the action. The resolution is simultaneously inevitable and expected but also completely new as what has, up until that point, looked like a solely historical, secondary plot, is brought fully into the present.
That secondary plot in The Raven Tower is one of the brilliant aspects of the novel; the narrator tells, interspersed into the main action of the plot, their own story, a story that goes into the deep past of the world. The early parts of the secondary plot involve the appearance and evolution of life on the planet around the character, to give some impression of quite how deep that past is. With a very self-absorbed narrator and very little action, Leckie’s writing is beautiful and moving, and still manages to move the reader and action along; the solipsism of the character falling away as they start to interact more and more with others, and we see those ties changing and strengthening and forcing actions in fascinating ways.
The Raven Tower‘s narrator is not, of course, the protagonist; rather, the reader steps into the role of protagonist, as a trans man named Eolo, addressed in the second person. Eolo is the person whose eyes we follow the main plot, although in reality he is the aide to the focus of the action; a curious and intelligent young man, he’s a brilliant character, unfailingly loyal but also with an independence of thought and action that I really appreciated. His transition isn’t made a big deal of, though it is mentioned at a couple of points; the novel is totally accepting of his gender, although certain characters are at times potentially less so.
The rest of the cast of The Raven Tower are a bit of a mixed bag. Some of them fail to rise above their bases in the story that Leckie has reworked, especially Hibal as the usurping king and Oskel and Okim as his pawns who are given a much more full backstory but still escape largely without character. Even Mawat is a little flat, although in a very human way; he is essentially a character defined by his temper and his belief in a set way of the world. When the latter is shaken, the former comes out; there is very little emotionality other than anger to him, although that anger is well written and Leckie does convey how much it defines him.
It’s with the women that Leckie really builds on the source text to do a lot more. Zezume, Mawat’s mother-figure, is a complex and conflicted character with a lot of agency in the plot, although she also proves flawed in who and what she places her faith in; The Raven Tower has a strong theme around misplaced faith and the consequences of it. Tikaz is the strongest case of this; a woman whose father has pushed her at Mawat, and who Mawat was in the past infatuated with, but who rejected him, and is absolute in her independence. She’s a fantastic character, smart and willing to fight for her place and her status, and Leckie really makes her shine.
This might sound like a decent book but not an outstanding one. All the elements are there; the genius is in the way Leckie takes them all, and uses them to create something so fresh, new, and brilliant. There’s a lot more to be said about The Raven Tower, but a lot of it is spoilery, or small; the way Leckie writes indigenous peoples and imperialism into her story, the way global trade links play a key role in the world, the way there is no good or bad side in the ultimate view only different kinds of bad side… there is an awful lot to percolate, to the point where a full accounting would be many thousands of words. Or the length of the book itself.
In the end, The Raven Tower takes its source material, highlights some of the problems of it while solving or evading them, and marries it to a fantastic narrative that takes in deep time and divine conflict, to become probably the best fantasy novel of 2019. And 2018 isn’t even over yet…
DISCLAIMER: Ann Leckie is a friend. Review based on an ARC provided by the author.