The Raven Tower: Intelligent, thoughtful, and visceral

Reposting to include Marion’s new review.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie fantasy book reviewsThe Raven Tower by Ann LeckieThe Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

The Raven Tower (2019) begins, as so many fantasy tales do, with a young man returning home to claim the powerful title and honor which are his birthright. Upon his arrival, he discovers that his father has gone missing and is presumed dead, while his uncle has taken the seat of power for himself with the promise that it will be given over to the young man when the time is deemed to be right (with the implicit understanding that the uncle will never do so). The young man then sets about proving his uncle’s perfidy and setting the countryside back to its normal state of affairs with the help of a few trusted friends. Despite much hardship and sacrifice, the young man succeeds in usurping the usurper, titles and honor are bestowed upon him, and everyone lives happily ever after, right? Right.

Except The Raven Tower is an Ann Leckie novel, and that means that nothing can be taken for granted or assumed to progress along the predetermined path. Fans of her science fiction novels like Ancillary Justice and Provenance will be pleased to hear that Leckie has just as deft a hand when it comes to gods and humans as she does with AI and orbiting stations. There’s a bit of “Hamlet if the story focused on Horatio rather than the Danish prince” at play, but that’s just one element of many, and the overall novel is a complex interweaving of mythology and history, faith and its effects on gods both great and small, human society and human nature, economics and politics, language and customs, rituals, and even a little bit of humor.

Once there was a man who rode home to attend his father’s funeral and claim his inheritance, but things were not as he expected them to be.

That man is Mawat, intended inheritor of “the Raven’s Lease of Iraden.” His father previously held that position, which involves conveying the will of their living god to the people of Iraden, and which Mawat has prepared his entire life to fulfill. Their god, the Raven, requires a blood sacrifice from the Lease; in return the Raven offers protection to Iraden and, particularly, the residents of Vastai, the port city where the Raven’s Tower was built. But Mawat’s succession to the Lease’s bench is thwarted by his uncle Hibal, who claims that Mawat’s father vanished and surely must have died, leaving Hibal with no option but to occupy the bench in Mawat’s absence as Mawat and Iraden’s soldiers patrolled their borders. Mawat knows but cannot yet prove that his uncle can only have become the Lease through dishonorable means, so he openly sulks for days in the Tower’s courtyard while charging his most trusted aide, a stalwart young man named Eolo, with discovering the truth.

It quickly becomes obvious that Eolo is the focus of Leckie’s story, not Mawat. In fact, the novel begins with a narrator describing Eolo riding out of the forest with Mawat, remarking that Eolo was as-yet-then unknown to the narrator, with a few hints that the narrator has their own involvement in the events leading to Mawat’s return to Vastai. So Eolo goes about meeting people who either helped raise Mawat, such as Mother Zezume of the Silent, an order of women that “began as a secret religious organization,” or the lady Tikaz, who grew up alongside Mawat and is well-acquainted with his infamous temper and mood swings. Eolo’s investigations and questions also put him in the orbit of a group of Xulahn travelers, who patiently-but-incessantly insist that they simply want to move through Iraden on their way to see the wider world before retuning home and writing about their travels. The truth of it all must be uncovered, but doing so might shake Iraden down to its very foundation.

Meanwhile, The Raven Tower‘s narrator — who consistently relates these events to and about Eolo — breaks up its story of Eolo’s investigation by inserting its own history and memories, stretching back almost to the creation of the world. It’s clear early on that the narrator is a figure of great power and longevity, one who makes friends with small gods and hides its existence from the ancient ones, who could absorb its power or extinguish its life simply by speaking aloud their desire to do so. This being has seen and experienced much, including its interactions with early humans that eventually became more sophisticated; their identity, and their ultimate relationship to the city of Vastai and Mawat’s family, both delighted me and made my blood run cold. Throughout the novel, the narrator repeats the idea that “there will be a reckoning,” and what that reckoning is in response to and how it takes form literally gave me chills.

The Raven Tower is the kind of novel that I’d love to discuss in deeper detail, poring over the various ways Leckie plays with language and expectations of every stripe and sort, but doing so would either necessitate several dozen spoiler-redactions or require me to write a thorough, academic-style examination of all its moving parts and pieces. Additionally, it’s my understanding that Leckie has written several short stories within this larger universe, and I’ve committed to tracking them down and reading them in order to spend a little more time in this world, possibly meeting inhabitants of lands which share borders with Iraden or getting to know some of the gods the narrator mentions, like The Myriad (who takes the form of a cloud of mosquitos) or The Silent Forest.

Ann Leckie

Take nothing for granted in The Raven Tower, pay attention to everything you’re told, and don’t let the seemingly-typical fantasy novel setting catch you off guard. Everything — every action, every detail, every conversation — has inescapable consequences. Highly recommended.

~Jana Nyman


The Raven Tower by Ann LeckieJana did a masterful job of discussing the plot of Leckie’s 2019 The Raven Tower without creating spoilers, no easy task. I’ll spend most of my review talking about the function of gods in this book, and how Leckie has used language to explore life, power and the nature of reality in a really interesting way.

In The Raven Tower, gods have existed before humans, or at least some did. They definitely benefit and gain power from worship and sacrifice. There is a hierarchy of gods; there are small gods that specialize (there is a god that only helps flintknappers), there are gods of great power and there were ancient gods, who may have been even more powerful than the present-day beings. Gods can share their power with one another if they choose.

Gods can change reality. To change reality costs a god a great deal of power that must be replenished through worship or sacrifice, or the borrowed power of another god. Most gods change reality hesitantly for that reason, and also because changing reality can create unintentional results or strange resonances. If a god speaks a thing it must be true, or else the god must expend enough energy to make it true. Gods having a casual conversation (to the extent they do) word their statements very carefully. For instance, several times in the course of the book we hear statements from a god that start with, “This is a story I have heard,” a truthful and neutral statement that protects them from accidentally saying something they must then expend power to make the truth.

At the time the story starts the Raven, the protector god of Iraden and the city of Vastai, is in a state of vulnerability and weakness. The Raven chooses to inhabit an actual bird, called The Raven’s Instrument. The human who rules the nation of Iraden is called the Raven’s Lease. When the Instrument dies, the human Lease must sacrifice themselves before the next Instrument hatches. This willing sacrifice empowers the Raven to continue its protection of the nation. When Mawat’s father disappears without sacrificing himself after the Instrument dies, the Raven is vulnerable and so, by extension, is the nation. Our narrator, who starts the book and tells the “present-tense” story in the second person, knows a lot about Mawat, but it is not Mawat they are watching; it’s Mawat’s aide, Eolo.

Eolo is a person with a secret who is also brave, perceptive, thoughtful, and exhibits unalloyed loyalty. Eolo also has the abilities of a priest, and this is one of the things that has drawn the narrator’s attention.

In some ways, the conjunction of language with power in The Raven Tower reminded me of China Mieville’s Embassytown. Leckie’s book is firmly rooted in fantasy, not SF, and I found her book more accessible, but she and Mieville are looking at some of the same themes. The concept of “speaking a thing into truth” is at the heart of a war between gods that we see in the book. Leckie manages to take the idea and use it as the basis of the story as well as a powerful metaphor for the power of language… or maybe, more darkly, the poisonous power of lies.

Some readers find second-person POV off-putting or pretentious; I encourage you to stay with it here, because it’s used for a very good reason. While my first impulse was that the very end of the book was rushed, I realized a moment later that it only seemed rushed from the perspective of the humans in the story. From the point of view of the narrator, it wasn’t rushed at all.

This is five-star book for me. I’m so glad I read it, and I’m so glad that Jana did all the heavy lifting in her review!

~Marion Deeds

Published in February 2019. Gods meddle in the fates of men, men play with the fates of gods, and a pretender must be cast down from the throne in this masterful first fantasy novel from Ann Leckie, New York Timesbestselling author and winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. For centuries, the kingdom of Iraden has been protected by the god known as the Raven. He watches over his territory from atop a tower in the powerful port of Vastai. His will is enacted through the Raven’s Lease, a human ruler chosen by the god himself. His magic is sustained via the blood sacrifice that every Lease must offer. And under the Raven’s watch, the city flourishes. But the power of the Raven is weakening. A usurper has claimed the throne. The kingdom’s borders are tested by invaders who long for the prosperity that Vastai boasts. And they have made their own alliances with other gods. It is into this unrest that the warrior Eolo–aide to Mawat, the true Lease–arrives. And in seeking to help Mawat 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 forever. 

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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10 comments

  1. Okay, I’m adding this book to my TBR pile, which is in danger of toppling over.

    • Definitely add this book to the pile, though. (Or start a new pile so your toes don’t get crushed by toppling books!) It’s SOOO good. :D

  2. Kevin S. /

    I tried this book and can only give it 2 stars. It just didn’t pull me in. I found the writing style awkward and clunky.

    • Was it the second-person narration that you found awkward? Typically I’m not a fan, but I trust Leckie to tell good stories and wasn’t let down.

      • Kevin S. /

        It’s hard to explain. At times, reading this book felt like work for me. As you mention in your review. every detail in the book matters and it got exhausting for me. So much going on. Plus, Leckie’s writing style just didn’t flow well for me. The Raven Tower is getting glowing reviews from just about everyone except me, so I clearly have weird taste in books :)

        • Everyone’s reading preferences are different, and luckily, there’s a wide range of SFF out there. :)

          • Kevin S. /

            So true!! I decided to re-read The Raven Tower and slow down this time. I tend to get in a hurry when reading, especially when I think I know what’s going to happen. I admit it is going better this time. The only parts that are still bothering me occasionally are when the narrator talks at length about his existence and interactions with the Myriad. I don’t want to give examples because it might distract others who read it. I’m really liking the parts with Eolo and his interactions with other characters (I’m on p.111). Maybe slowing down helped?!? :)

  3. I think slowing down definitely helped! I won’t go into any detail (so as to avoid even a hint of spoilers) but the narrator’s conversations with The Myriad and its details about its existence pay off, I promise. :)

  4. Marion and Jana, you’ve succeeded in moving this novel to the top of my TBR pile! It sounds wonderful and challenging.

  5. Paul Connelly /

    It was clever, it used some innovative techniques, I mostly liked it, but…something was lacking. It was hard to become deeply involved with any of the characters. Too many just had the potential to be interesting without going the extra mile to deliver on that potential. So, kind of like watching a play from pretty far back in the theater, if that analogy makes sense.

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