Ann Leckie practically redefined what space opera could be with her debut Ancillary series. And in The Raven Tower she does a similar thing for fantasy. Using a Shakespeare-meets-Homer scaffold she brings a new twist to the relationship between humans and divine beings.
The Raven Tower opens in second person. Writing in this way is always a bit of a high wire act. NK Jemisin used it to great effect in her Hugo winning Broken Earth trilogy. But there is method to Leckie’s madness (and great literary skill). For a start, this technique avoids gendered pronouns and, as with the Ancillary series, Leckie plays with gender and the reader’s (and characters’) understanding of it. Secondly, it gives an immediate, almost omniscient feel, which is appropriate given the book is narrated by a god.
At first blush The plot feels like it is taken straight out of Hamlet. Mawat, heir to the “throne” of Vastai (known as the Lease of the Raven) returns from the front with his aide Eolo to find his father, the former Lease, missing and his uncle in power. The Raven is one of the gods of Vastai and protects the Lease from harm on the understanding that they will sacrifice themselves at the end of their reign. Mawat’s father has failed to do that, instead mysteriously disappearing. To continue the Hamlet analogy one of the city’s key officials wants his daughter Tikaz (aka Cordelia) to marry Mawat and at one point Mawat’s uncle brings two of Mawat’s old acquaintances (aka Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) to bring him round. But the analogy is fairly loose, and none of the characters act as they do in the Shakespeare play, Tikaz is particularly kick-arse at one point.
In the background is the story of the gods and a great war that they engaged in through their human worshippers. This story is told from the point of view of an ancient stone god who also explains the complex rules that govern these beings around how they are worshipped and how they can exercise their powers. It becomes clear fairly quickly that it is this god who is narrating by “talking” to Eolo (although Eolo cannot here this commentary). In the relationship between gods and humans as instruments of war, The Raven Tower starts to resemble The Iliad, just a little, but again, only as a reference point.
In an age where epic fantasy still seems to mainly consist of doorstops about quests and dragons and mighty houses and prophecies, The Raven Tower stands out. The characters are complex, the gender politics is subtly handled and the belief system is fascinating. The god’s narration has echoes with the real-world development of religion and both of stories being told come together cleverly and consistently with the alternate but very familiar world that Leckie has created.
Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy built itself on a number tropes established by other great authors but used them to change the ground rules of space opera. It also gave her a platform from which she could branch out into the equally enjoyable Provenance. The Raven Tower does the same, building on some giants of literary tradition and some of the standard fantasy building blocks but re-imagining them in a way that respects the genre and builds on it in a new and intriguing way.