The Raven Tower is packed with both mythology and texture.
Though Ann Leckie has become a big name in the science fiction world over the past five years (her exceptional Imperial Radch Trilogy won many of the industry’s biggest awards), The Raven Tower marks her fantasy debut. Though there are obvious and plentiful connections between the science fiction and fantasy genres, the demarcations are clear, and Leckie makes the leap without bringing along any genre confusion. She employs many of her strengths, particularly with regards to the political machinations of her imagined worlds as well as the inclusion of an exhaustively detailed yet tidily relayed history for those worlds. Where The Raven Tower particularly succeeds, however, is with Leckie’s insistence on creating deep, interesting characters, many of whom push the boundaries of what mainstream fantasy has allowed for its protagonists.
The Raven Tower is set in the world of Iraden, a land of several gods and kingdoms. The most significant of these gods, the Raven, protects Iraden from atop the titular tower in the city of Vastai. The Raven makes his will known through a bird called the Instrument, and he uses the Instrument to communicate with his chosen human ruler, known as the Raven’s Lease. The Raven gives the Raven’s Lease power, but the exchange is that the Raven more or less owns the Raven’s Lease. Complicating matters is that Iraden’s other primary god, the god of the Silent Forest, lives just outside Vastai’s gates and communicates through his chosen human, the Mother of the Silent. Though this setup is the stuff of high fantasy, Leckie grounds it by basing the plot’s momentum around a set of circumstances inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Mawat, heir to the Raven’s Lease, arrives home in Vastai to find the Instrument dead, his uncle on the throne, and his father missing. Though Mawat’s position is at the center of the plot, our sympathies lie with his advisor, Eolo.
Yet while it is Eolo that Leckie follows most closely, Eolo is not the narrator. The narrator is, instead, a mysterious god known as the Strength and Patience of the Hill. This god at first seems content to sit back and tell the story from his omnipotent perspective, yet as things progress the Hill begins to try to communicate with Eolo, leading to some bouts of second-person storytelling within the tale. The second-person tactic lends itself well to fantasy, bringing the reader in much as a role-playing videogame brings in the player, and it was recently used very well in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. While Leckie is approaching the POV from a different outlook than Jemisin is, the effect is the same, bringing the reader closer to a protagonist who at times feels quite distant.
By using Hamlet as inspiration, Leckie reins in her plot, which is a very smart move considering the amount of world-building she does within a relatively slim book. Leckie’s Iraden is enchanting and complicated both in the present and past presented within the book, and by imposing a relatively strict template she keeps The Raven Tower moving forward rather than bogging down readers in mythology.
Of particular note is that many of the characters and relationships in The Raven Tower are LGBTQ+, which lends itself well to fantasy even though the genre as a whole (in mainstream terms) has not been kind or inclusive to queer people. Though these characters and relationships fit organically into the plot, they are not haphazardly thrown in; Leckie subtly subverts expectations throughout to provide realistic, satisfying and surprising destinations for her characters and their relationships.
The Raven Tower may be relatively short for an epic fantasy, but it is packed with both mythology and texture. Its inclusiveness doesn’t pander, rather sending the plot into exciting directions that will leave readers satisfied and eager for more.