I adored Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, with the first book Ancillary Justice being one of my favorite reads in 2015. One of the things I loved about these book is how the author was able to shape cultures that felt vivid and complex, exploring the power structures that exist and the various nuances of custom, belief, and prejudice within those societies — and this is something she does equally well in her first foray into fantasy, The Raven Tower.
The Raven Tower is set in a world in which gods are very much present. Humanity worships them and they are granted power according to the amount of sacrifice they receive, which in turn enables them to grant a certain amount of requests the humans make. There are strict limitations to the god’s power, however. Although a god may speak and make a thing true, the god must be careful in their speech — for if they make a promise that is beyond their power, they will become drained and die.
Set in this world, this story is told from the point of view of The Strength and Patience of the Hill, a god who has take the form of a giant stone who accepts what little offerings come their way and is very precise in their speech, promising little in return. He begins by relating the story of Eolo, a soldier of Iraden and aide to Mawat, heir to the Raven’s Lease.
“I first saw you when you rode out of the forrest, past the cluster of tall, bulge-eyed offering stakes that mark the edges of the forrest, your horse at a walk. You rode beside Mawat, himself a familiar sight to me: tall, broad-shouldered, long hair in dozens of braids pulled back in a broad ring, feathers worked in repoussé on gold, his dark gray cloak lined with blue silk.”
Just as the gods and how they operate are fascinating in this world, so too are the human cultures and societies that exist among them. The people of Vastai are ruled by the Raven’s Lease who is bound to and rules in the name of the Raven, the god of Iraden. The Raven’s Lease is granted this power, because he promises to sacrifice himself in the name of the god at the appointed time. The story begins with Eolo returning to Vastai, the capital of Iraden, with Mawat, who expects to take is place as the Raven’s Lease following his father’s sacrifice. However, the two return to a great surprise, as they are informed the Lease has fled his duties and Mawat’s uncle has now taken the role as Lease — igniting political intrigue and unrest.
I don’t want to relate much more of the plot than that, because it’s fascinating to see how the characters discover the truth and how events from years in the past turn out to have an astounding impact on the present.
What I do find interesting, however, is the way The Strength and Patience of the Hill relates this story. My first expectation when reading was that Eolo was going to be the main character, and in a way he is. As the aid to Mawat, he is at the center of the political intrigue and has the ability to unravel what’s happening in ways Mawat would not have been able to. However, because we’re being told about Eolo through the lens of a distant god, there’s a kind of emotional distance between Eolo and the reader. I cared about the character and wanted him to succeed, but never felt fully connect to him because of how his story is filtered. It’s fascinating and might not have worked with an author less skilled.
Honestly, I’m in awe at how Leckie ability to pull this novel off. There are so many complex layers to the world, the cultures, the characters, and the plot. It’s stunning, and the ending itself is fascinating to me as well — since it’s one of those endings that annoyed me while at the same time being utterly perfect for the story told, an ending that I sit and think about and reassess every time it comes to mind. It’s brilliant and frustrating and I love it the more I think about it.
Did you read The Raven Tower? Let me know what you thought about it in the comments.