The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie – review

A switch of genre for this most interesting of SF writers, a woman who can weaponise pronouns and shock you into a new way of thinking.

Pronouns feature again, here: this novel is told in the second person. The narrator is, it is gradually revealed, a rock that fell from space and is also a god in a fantasy world filled with minor and local gods. The object of the narration, the you of the sentences, is a transgender soldier who acts as loyal factotum to a princeling, an heir to a throne, who appears to have been cheated out of his inheritance by a wicked uncle. Except not really a prince, not really a throne, because this is Ann Leckie.

So it’s a little bit like Hamlet. Something is rotten in the state city city state overseen by the Raven, a god who lives in the titular tower. A god who incarnates as a raven, but then also speaks through a human who acts as the Raven’s representative. Not a king so much as a minor pope.  And then of course the princeling is not a prince so much as an heir to a minor papacy, except not quite. When the raven incarnate, the bird, dies, the Pope, the Raven’s Lease, is also supposed to die, his sacrifice giving more power to the Raven, who is immediately reborn into an egg. Because it’s a Lease, right, you’re only there for as long as the bird lives.

And then there’s a liminal stage, between incarnations, as the egg waits to hatch. What then? Who’s running the show? What’s that grinding noise coming from below?

Local gods is exactly where I live, part of the title of my PhD thesis. Local gods who lose their power but are still worshipped by some small band of people; local gods who are subsumed and defeated by other, more powerful local gods, and so on.

There are two strands to this narrative. One is the slowly emerging, patiently told story of the rock who fell to earth. The other is the more urgent here-and-now tale of the transgender soldier, his Hamlet-like Leaseling, and the wicked uncle who appears to be up to no good. One narrative is about an immortal (?) being who has all the time in the world; the other is about short-lived, fragile humans who do not. 

Hence the pacing, a slow build so that it that took me some percentage of the novel to get on board. But then it gets more interesting, once you get what’s going on. Like Becky Chambers’ work, these narratives spiral around and come together in a close and common orbit, and they reach the same conclusion, as it were.

As with most fantasy novels, this is left open for a sequel, an immediate divergence from that same conclusion, which is kind of maddening. But then Leckie’s Imperial Radch space opera series was a three book series, and the way the publishing industry operates is on such franchises, so it’s more or less inevitable. Interesting, though, that no sequel has appeared for Provenance, her previous SF novel, which I also enjoyed.

So here we are, at what appears to be the beginning of another series. It’s good. The pronouns here don’t quite have the same sting, but it’s still a patiently built universe with, clearly, many stories to tell. If I’ve a criticism it’s that the second person narration doesn’t provide an inner life for the central (human) character, so we don’t really learn much about him, other than that he’s loyal and brave. Perhaps the second in the series will give us more.