The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

I would like to thank Nazia from Orbit for providing an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Orbit

Published – Out Now

Price - £16.99 hardback

A usurper has claimed the throne. Invaders amass at the borders. And they have made their alliance with enemy gods…

For centuries, the kingdom of Iraden has been protected by a god known as the Raven. But in their hour of need, the Raven seems to have abandoned its people.

It is into this unrest that the warrior Eolo – aide to the true heir to the throne – arrives. In seeking to help his master reclaim his city, Eolo discovers that the Raven’s tower holds a secret. Its foundations conceal a dark history that has been waiting to reveal itself…and to set in motion a chain of events that could destroy Iraden for ever.

As a self-confessed Slytherin I do admit I like a bit of intrigue.  Fantasy often does too but generally epic battles tend to dominate the narrative; but dangle a tale with an exploration of political power and how factions battle for it is always going for me to be slightly ahead of the biggest battle ever.  For me these quieter but often just as important moments behind the throne allow for exploration of many different types of characters to the classic hero.  I was so pleased to discover Ann Leckie (author of the amazing Ancillary Justice) avoided the easy road and instead provides us with a tale of ancient gods, powerful magic and battling families delivered in such a refreshingly unusual way to give me what I suspect will be already one of the best fantasies this year.

Mawat and Eolo are heading to the capital of Iraden where their powerful god The Raven resides in the avatar of.... well …a Raven… which from time to time dies and is re-incarnated in a new egg.  At that point of death, the human ruler of the realm known as The Raven’s Lease must sacrifice himself to honour an ancient debt and secure the ongoing power and prosperity of the people ahead of the Raven hatching.  Traditionally this powerful role then falls to the next in the family line to take over - tradition says this would typically be the Lease’s own heir which would make Mawat all powerful.  However, upon his arrival, he discovers his father appears to have vanished rather than killed himself and instead Mawat’s uncle Hibal has been rushed into power. The two returning soldiers must then work out what’s happened and what this means for this powerful nation where a number of their enemies are scheming a long overdue retaliation..

Now if this was a standard fantasy.  And no doubt you’ve read your Hamlet you can imagine then we would focus on Mawat and his quest for justice ending with armies fighting on the fields of valour.  I’m so pleased to tell you this story is much more interesting.  Mawat while a cunning warrior is also petulant and sulky and is either hiding in his room or having a one man protest outside the Raven’s Tower to the locals’ amusement.  Instead the focus is on Eolo the outsider who has got through the army on merit and is being exposed for the first time to court politics.  The friend of an heir finds eeeveryonnnne wants to talk to you from the new Raven’s Lease himself to foreign diplomats.

There are games being played on all sides and Eolo’s loyalty to Mawat is being tested. Eolo is a compelling lead he has a sense of humour; knows how to fight and loves to put the pieces of the mystery of the disappearing Lease together. So much more refreshing to have someone who works for their position rather than being born as the leader in waiting as Mawat is.  Intriguingly Eolo is trans and the general reaction to people discovering this about him is generally one of acceptance.  People are much more interested in his political views than his biology.  The matter of factness this is discussed by characters shows that modern fantasy really is learning to match the views of the 21st century and that is so so welcome.

But there is one more character that makes this book intriguing. The book is being told throughout in second person and our narrator is a God. In this world there are many Gods large and small who over millennia have been vying for power and working on increasing the extent of their power and number of worshippers.  Our guide is a God who has continued to hold their presence…in a large rock. If you consider how people worship ancient places and monuments that makes much more sense and our narrator is just so damn engaging. Leckie creates an amiable often sardonic voice as a rock they gave sat back from many of the deities battling for power but over the course of the book Eolo’s tale gets interspersed with a number of God legends as to how magical power in this world works and how this particular God has taken a role that means Eolo’s fate and the Raven’s will now finally all cross paths. 

This is such an unusual look at the power of Gods – they aren’t a standard all-knowing pantheon in fact many come from outside of the world they now live on, but they don’t fully understand their power.  Mirroring the humans, we see many factions vying for ever more power and factions developing and often crossing alliances. They are all devotees of the long games where the Gods make small changes to the world may over decades make harbours and create trading routes. Pay attention as there is a lot of sowing seeds for the resolution of the tale but when you see the big picture you can only applaud how Leckie makes all this click together seamlessly.

I’ve enjoyed Leckie’s SF a great deal and was intrigued what she would bring to a fantasy universe and was not disappointed at all. For me this is such a refreshing approach the army battles happen to the side but the truly world changing events are happening in a castle. The Gods are not mythic but can be as kind or as merciless as their human followers and how that relationship works and has consequences for entire countries make this as tense as a city siege in places. If you just want action and a fast pace, then you may be disappointed but if you enjoy tales like The Goblin Emperor and like tales where brain beats brawn then I think this is one tale you really need in your lives.