‘The Raven Tower’ by Ann Leckie

Initial Rating: Recommended with Reservations (How I Rate Books)

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Genres: LGBT, Fantasy, Adult, Literary Fantasy, High Fantasy, Fiscal Fantasy

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Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

Here’s the TL;DR for my review (SPOILERS!):

  • Pros
    • I like the narrator of the book, a god who is bound to a stone.
    • I liked the plot arc about the god who is bound to the stone.
    • Really well paced. It wasn’t exactly fast paced, but it was pleasantly sauntering paced.
  • Mixed
    • The story is told in pseudo-2nd person narrative style. If you’re willing to try something new/different, chances are you’ll like it… but if not you might read this and bounce right off of it. I liked it, mostly.
    • The setting was in some ways awesome, and in other ways generic.
  • Cons
    • I didn’t really like the plot arc about Eolo and Mawat.

I really liked this book, and at times I loved it. I was this close at times to giving this a ‘Highly Recommended’ rating. But in the end I decided to give it a ‘Recommended with Reservations’ rating. This isn’t to say that this book is bad: far from it. In many ways I think this is a great book with very few flaws. However I think that this book’s unique features might turn some people off. To repeat, this book isn’t bad. As a matter of fact I think this is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

This book is narrated by the character ‘The Strength and Patience on the Hill,’ a god who inhabits a stone on a hill. About 2/3s of the book occur in the present day. During these sections ‘Strength’ narrates the actions of Eolo and Mawat. The remaining 1/3 is about ancient history, with ‘Strength’ narrating to us the audience about ‘Strength’s’ own history. As a result, this book has a 2nd person narrative style for the 2/3s in the present. Some people will like/won’t mind this narrative choice, but others will be turned off by 2nd-person style.

Plot: This book was basically 2 novellas fused together. The foremost plotarc is about Eolo and Mawat, investigating the events surrounding Mawat’s father’s disappearance. Mawat’s dad was the Raven’s Lease (aka King of Iraden), and after he disappeared Mawat’s uncle took the throne. Mawat is understandably pissed about this. What follows is exactly what you expect: Mawat and Eolo investigating the events surrounding the disappearance of Mawat’s father. It felt a lot like Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet.’ I would have liked if the author didn’t quite keep so true to the original. A red herring or two would have been appreciated.

The other plotarc was about ‘Strength’ and her eternity-long lifetime, and the various god-politics and god-trading which has gone on in and around Iraden in the millennia leading up to the present day. I found this story to be more interesting, because the author carefully interwove the worldbuilding, characters and plot together. I wish the entire book was about ‘Strength’ because she was just that compelling.

At the very end of the novel the two novellas fused together to become a single unified storyline, with the two plotarcs ending together at the same time. It was very well done. However up until that point the two stories felt like they were unnaturally glued together.

Pacing: Well done. I was never bored, nor was it ever too tense.

Characters: Of the three protagonists, I only really liked two of them.

‘Strength’ had a very clear, very cool personality. As she is a boulder who lives on a hill, she is very patient and stubborn. When she has to solve a problem, she solves it by simply waiting. To her, eventually all things end- even other gods.

Eolo was the second main protagonist, and he is a male-passing soldier who is in service of Iraden’s army. The fact that he’s trans is entirely unimportant to the story, and is hardly mentioned at all.

Eolo is Mawat’s right hand man. When Mawat (the prince of Iraden) is rebelling against his uncle, Eolo is the guy responsible for figuring out what happened to his disappeared father. It is through Eolo that we learn about the modern-day politics of Iraden. But honestly, beyond the whole LGBT aspect of this character he doesn’t seem to have much in the way of personality. His greatest personality traits were loyalty to Mawat and occasional cleverness, and that’s it. He made for a fairly monotone main character, kinda Harry Potter like but without Harry’s occasional jerkishness. I would have liked for Eolo to display more traits.

Mawat is an important secondary character. He is the Hamlet in this ‘Hamlet’ retelling. I actually liked him. He was prideful, rage-filled, scornful, prone to violence and super confident. His rise and fall throughout the story was amazing to watch. You knew what was about to happen with him well in advance, but nonetheless seeing it happen was fantastic.

In short, Mawat was passionate, and watching that passion was fun. ‘Strength’ was decisive, and watching that decisiveness was fun. However Eolo lacked agency in this novel, as everything he wanted was subsumed by his desire to serve Mawat. Not a very interesting character, at least for me.

Execution: The author successfully wrote a 2nd person, Hamlet-inspired story about gods and kings. Her execution was good. I would have personally preferred if the author made Mawat the main character and not Eolo, but I can’t have everything.

Setting: I liked the setting, but didn’t love it. The author wrote a pseudo-medieval story about gods and mortals, as they try to game the system and defeat one another. In short, ‘Strength’ tells the story of the world before humanity, and then how humanity advanced through the Stone Age and then the Bronze and Iron Ages, up until the present day. ‘Strength’ being such a patient god really put it in perspective how short life was.

The author focuses on trade and the movement of resources from continent to continent, in the context of gods and civilizations. Gods want what’s best for their worshipers, so naturally far-sighted deities care quite a bit about making sure there’s enough food and wood for their worshipers and incense for their shrines. As a result, gods are more than willing to go to war with one another to secure those resources. ‘Strength’s’ plot arc is about one such war, while Eolo’s plot arc has another such war going on in it’s background.

To add to this, the author describes the mechanics of how gods work. Basically whatever a god says is truth, so gods have to be very careful with what they say for fear of accidentally killing themselves or causing something counterproductive. Gods can form contracts and alliances with one another and with humans, trying to further their collective interests. This really reminded me of the Craft Sequence setting, but this setting was more ‘mundane’ compared to how bonkers the Craft Sequence is. (Not that that’s a bad thing! This setting seemed comparatively grounded in a good way.)

My big problem with the setting was that it was too medieval inspired. I’ve read a good bit of medieval fantasy recently and I wanted something different. This wasn’t bad per se, but it had a good few generic parts. I wish the author kept the book solidly in the Stone Age or Bronze Age. It would have been a change of pace.

Prose: I liked it. On the Stained Glass/Windowpane Glass spectrum, I felt that this was on the Windowpane Glass side of the spectrum. (Stained Glass= beautiful prose for the sake of beauty, Windowpane= functional prose, aiding in suspension of disbelief by not being ostentatious). Even though the prose was mostly invisible, I think the 2nd person narrative structure was beautiful in it’s own way and deserves the ‘literary fantasy’ qualifier.

Net total I loved parts of this a whole lot, but I think this books is niche enough that it’s probably not for everyone. If my review tempts you, give it a go. Maybe check out a free section of the book online to see if you’re interested. The plot and pacing was really well written and well executed, even if some of the narrative choices weren’t so hot.

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