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The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

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.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold


Lord Cazaril has been in turn courier, courtier, castle-warder, and captain; now he is but a crippled ex-galley slave seeking nothing more than a menial job in the kitchens of the Dowager Provincara, the noble patroness of his youth. But Fortune’s wheel continues to turn for Cazaril, and he finds himself promoted immediately to the exalted and dangerous position of secretary-tutor to the Iselle, the beautiful, fiery sister of the heir to Chalion’s throne.

Amidst the decaying splendour and poisonous intrigue of Chalion’s ancient capital, Cardegoss, Cazaril is forced to encounter both old enemies and surprising allies, as he seeks to lift the curse of misfortune that clings to the royal family of Chalion, and to all who come too close to them…
Lois McMaster Bujold is probably best known for her sprawling space epic the Vorkosigan Saga, which she has been writing for the past three decades; in amongst this, critically feted and barely less well known, she’s also written a few fantasy novels, set in the world of Chalion. This isn’t the first of the Chalion novels I’ve read – I started with Penric’s Demon, a beautiful novella out from Subterranean – but it was the first written, so I’ve come to it by a slightly circuitous route.

There are a couple of big themes I want to pick out, but Curse of Chalion is fundamentally a novel, and so must be assessed on plot and character. And on those scores, Bujold is unsurprisingly solid. The plot relies on coincidence heavily for its conclusion but arguably earns that, by invoking the gods and destiny; throughout, it’s a driven, fast-paced thing, that hangs not on a succession of violences but far more heavily on communication, diplomacy, politics, and maneuvering and mutual respect, in a heartening, if sadly uncommon, turn. The plot is driven largely by men and women trying to do their best; there is a consistent message of humans trying to do their flawed best in face of a confusing world where that isn’t always clear. For a five hundred page novel there’s surprisingly little dead space; Bujold has a tendency to repetition to drive a philosophical point home, or to linger on a character’s struggles to make sure we know what’s going on, and there’s an extent to which the first hundred-odd pages are prologue to a story we could be dropped a little nearer the start of. Once it gets going, though, Bujold makes sure each obstacles leads neatly to the next, bigger, linked obstacle, drawing the reader through the rest of Curse of Chalion with a powerful confidence.

The characters are where Bujold’s strength as a writer really shines through, though; almost every one feels like an individual, with their own motives which, looked at through their lens, are positive. Cazaril, especially, has a brilliant sense of humour, which had me laughing out loud at some particularly droll moments; but Curse of Chalion is peppered with astute people whose intelligence isn’t all directed the same way, and who aren’t geniuses, but who notice the world around them. The antagonists of the novel are in some cases painted in very broad brush-strokes – Dondo is a bit of a cliche, and his followers similarly so, with their “bad characters we’re meant to dislike debauching in every way”; indeed, the novel is singularly unsubtle in who we’re meant to sympathise with, weakening the general message a bit.

Written in 2001, Curse of Chalion feels like a humanist and religious response to the grim movement led by George R. R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and others. It opens following Cazaril as a beggar, who has been whipped nearly to death while a galley slave; unflinchingly, Bujold tackles PTSD, male sexual assault, mutilation and violence, but without the pornographising of the grimdark movement, and without pretending it is only ever directed at women (rape is never portrayed, but it is implied, of both men and women). However, this isn’t in the name of showing how awful everyone is, and that there’s no hope; Curse of Chalion isn’t that kind of book. Instead, it’s about showing how bad people can be; about how society (and, admittedly, magic) can enable people to be vile or force them into vileness, as much as freedom of choice can lead them to be noble, good people (and that the latter can win, though they won’t necessarily do so).

That’s the humanism; but the religiousness of the novel is perhaps more interesting. Curse of Chalion isn’t a straightforward parable, by any stretch of the imagination, although the differences between the Quintarian and Quadrene believers have parallels within Christianity and within the family of the Abrahamic religions. Instead, it’s a meditation on faith itself, and on what faith is; it’s a generous novel, in that regard, in a way that much of fantastic fiction isn’t. The gods work, as in most practiced theologies, through humans opening their hearts and their wills to them; and the gods do actually work through that, in ways both subtle and large. Religion is assumed, but doesn’t make one good – one can be a practitioner and vile, or one who just makes gestures to faithfulness and on the side of good. Bujold’s exploration of faith has a subtlety and deftness to its touch that is belied by the apparent bluntness of its message; after all, some of the greatest good deeds of the novel have nothing to do with faith, and some of the darkest deeds have everything to do with it – Bujold’s idea of faith is essentially, after all, humanitarian.

One notable flaw of Curse of Chalion is its approach to queerness. It is, in some ways, novelly bad at its presentation of homosexuality, which almost becomes a strength, but still falls down. While the backstory includes multiple queer characters, including a poly triad, either every instance of queerness in the world is tragic (involving the death of one partner, often because of the other) or sadistic (because societal repression); homosexual rape in all-male environments in Curse of Chalion isn’t about power, as we sociologically know to be the case, but about expression of desires society demands be repressed, and so a matter of queerness. If we saw a happy queer couple in the book, this would be defused; but instead we see single queers happy, and queer couples consistently doomed to failure.

This leaves us with a novel that is at once disappointed in its approach to issues of queerness, but essentially uplifting; a painful contradiction for this queer but, in the end, the humanism wins out over the homophobic tropes, to make Curse of Chalion a pleasant, thought-provoking read.

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Cold Iron by Stina Leicht


Fraternal twins Nels and Suvi move beyond their royal heritage and into military and magical dominion in this flintlock epic fantasy debut from a two-time Campbell Award finalist.

Prince Nels is the scholarly runt of the ancient Kainen royal family of Eledore, disregarded as flawed by the king and many others. Only Suvi, his fraternal twin sister, supports him. When Nels is ambushed by an Acrasian scouting party, he does the forbidden for a member of the ruling family: He picks up a fallen sword and defends himself. Disowned and dismissed to the military, Nels establishes himself as a leader as Eledore begins to shatter under the attack of the Acrasians, who the Kainen had previously dismissed as barbarians. But Nels knows differently, and with the aid of Suvi, who has allied with pirates, he mounts a military offensive with sword, canon, and what little magic is left in the world.
Cold Iron is, Stina Leicht says in her afterword, the novel prompted by wondering what Lord of the Rings would have been like had Tolkein been American; leaving aside the vast disparity in length (Cold Iron isn’t much shorter than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and is only book one of a series) this is very much epic fantasy in the Tolkeinian mode, albeit with some clear and interesting departures from that model…

The first is in its protagonists; Cold Iron has three protagonists, rather than the whole team of Tolkein, each of whom has help from friends and subordinates, but neither of whom really functions as part of a team of equals. That two of those protagonists are female is more than a cosmetic departure from Tolkein, as is making only one of them a fighter; the other two (both of the women, unfortunately) have different skills, are required to fulfill different roles, and never have to learn to fight, albeit this is because they are insulated from that necessity by position rather than anything else. Nels is, inevitably, our least interesting protagonist; as a soldier he doesn’t get very involved in the political struggles and has the closest journey of any character to the archetypical epic fantasy hero, realising his mysterious power and having to make difficult choices for the good of his kingdom and the world at multiple turns.

Ilta and Suvi, though, are both more static characters, more engaged with diplomacy and politics directly; Ilta is sidelined for an awful lot of the novel and seems little more than a convenient repository of knowledge on multiple occasions, but has some interesting dilemmas about how to use her powers of healing and foresight in various contexts. Cold Iron‘s real star, though, is Suvi, even if the novel often seems not to realise that; a political character moving through various realms of skulduggery and diplomacy, learning how to be a ruler while discovering the compromises any ruler has to make and the sacrifices that must be made, she’s a character who really grows across the course of the book and whose actions actually seem to make a difference, as opposed to Ilta as an accidental catalyst and Nels providing little if any agency at all.

The plot is as slow as one might expect, with much of the book rendered pointless by its ending; Cold Iron sees the breaking and reforging of familial bonds, the rise and fall of Nels and Suvi as powerful, the faltering failure and subsequent repair of a romance between Ilta and Nels, and – the one thing that does change – the war between the Eledoreans and the Acrasians, humans to the southern border. That so much of the novel replicates the status quo ante bellum at its conclusion is unfortunate, because we’ve ploughed through 650 pages to get there; things have advanced, but in quite a rushed nature, and a large part of the early novel wasn’t advancing anything. Mind you, Leicht does give us a compelling ending, and those things that have moved have moved a lot; I’d’ve liked less jumping around in time and more of a focus on how things were changing that we see changed, because much of the action seems to take place in gaps between chapters, rather than before our eyes.

That’s not to say the writing isn’t good; for a book the length of this one, Cold Iron feels much shorter, with punchy, well-written chapters full of action (just rather episodic and often fizzling to nothing), and some excellent moments. The description avoids falling into the Tolkeinian trap of love of every tree, leaf and twig; rather, it gives us a world that is as full as we need it to be to imagine it clearly, and that allows the sections of Cold Iron where Leicht draws on horror tropes to really have a sense of terror and doom to them, of a strange Outside evil. It’s a well-captured world, without trying to reach too far into a total control of the reader’s imagination but directing it well and accurately.

The biggest problem with this book, though, is that we’re rooting for the villains. Cold Iron gives us as heroes a magical species whose royal family and others have a verbal command magic that can be used on anyone; while there are ethical rules around its actual use, these are established early on as frequently broken. Essentially, the kainen can – and do! – bypass consent; every character who can, does this at some point, and Leicht doesn’t seem to interrogate how problematic this is. The Acrasians, humans, don’t have but are affected by this magic, and that’s no small part of what drives them; unaccountable being who can completely control them against their will are an easy enemy to hate – but again: Leicht makes those beings the hero, and does so by simply (at least in this novel) waving away the issues of consent, of agency, that such magic inevitably gives rise to, while using it to prop up a monarchy and class system which is equally unquestioned.

Cold Iron is a bit of a bumpy ride, then, and one whose ultimate destination I at least am rather disturbed by; but Leicht’s characters are interesting and human, and her writing is generally good, so I’m likely to see where the next leg of the journey takes us… given the dramatically changed circumstances of the cast at the end of this novel, it’s sure to be interesting!

The Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear


Elizabeth Bear concludes her award-winning epic fantasy trilogy, The Eternal Sky, with Steles of the Sky.

Re Temur, exiled heir to his grandfather’s Khaganate, has finally raised his banner and declared himself at war with his usurping uncle. With his companions—the Wizard Samarkar, the Cho-tse Hrahima, and the silent monk Brother Hsiung—he must make his way to Dragon Lake to gather in his army of followers.

Temur has many enemies, and they are not idle. The sorcerer who leads the Nameless Assassins, whose malice has shattered the peace of all the empires of the Celedon Highway, has struck at Temur’s uncle already. To the south, in the Rasan empire, a magical plague rages. To the east, the great city of Asmaracanda has burned, and the Uthman Caliph is deposed. And in the hidden ancient empire of Erem, Temur’s son has been born, and a new moon has risen in the Eternal Sky.
Being a review of the final installment in a trilogy, this post will contain spoilers for both Range of Ghosts and Shattered Pillars