The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie

I adore Ann Leckie’s sci-fi stories. Her new novel, The Raven Tower, is a departure into fantasy, and it is quite simply remarkable in its ambition and its voice.

The Raven Tower is presented as a single, continuous narrative, with a narrator who’s present in the story. I will not spoil the details, because the slow unwinding and revelation of the story is part and parcel of its brilliance. At the point where Leckie draws together apparently disparate narrative threads, she does so with supreme gusto in a moment that made me rewind the audiobook to check I’d heard it right.

The characters, as in all of Leckie’s work, are fascinating. Eolo is our protagonist—or rather, the person into whose shoes we are invited to step, as he is the person addressed by the narrator as ‘you.’ I think (but I’m willing to be proven wrong) that there’s been a recent uptick in speculative fiction narratives written in the second person (the incomparable Broken Earth series by N. K. Jemisin as a recent example) and I’m all for it.

In The Raven Tower, gods draw power from offerings, turning religion and worship into an almost transactional affair. The Raven, the god of Iraden, inhabits the physical body of a raven. When the body dies, the Raven’s Lease, the de facto leader of Vastai and Iraden, must sacrifice his own life to the god—payment is made, and the cycle continues as a new raven chick hatches. Eolo is the right-hand man of Mawat, who arrives in the town of Vastai expecting to inherit the Raven’s Lease from his father—only to find his uncle on the bench, and his father missing, the Lease unpaid.

It is this mystery that lays the groundwork for Eolo dashing about Vastai and investigating what has happened. While these escapades happen, the voice of the Narrator grows stronger: they delve into their own past, to the past of Vastai, and to the mechanics of how gods work in this world. The imagery and interplay of pronouns and points of view leads to an unsettling, uncertain atmosphere, where themes of subjugation, deception, and power are refracted through the narrative.

There’s an interesting detail that should get some attention: Eolo, the protagonist, is a transgender man. This is obliquely referenced early on: Mawat tells him that “the Raven could… [make it] so you could be who you really are… [you] wouldn’t have to trouble yourself with bindings, or hiding anything.” (Eolo declines, telling Mawat that he already is who he is.)

Leckie’s work has never exactly been cis- or hetero-normative (the Imperial Radch series addresses everyone as ‘she,’ and Provenance includes a third gender using e/em/eir pronouns.) I was delighted to see a representation of a fantasy setting—one with ‘old world’ technology and medieval influences—that features canon queer characters.

But I am a little torn on how Eolo experiences and moves through the world as a trans man, through the lens of the scene mentioned above and another where an injured Eolo is asked by his carer if he is a man, or a girl who dresses as a man to be allowed to fight. To some extent, I wonder if it’s necessary for latent cissexism to exist in a fantasy world; on the other hand, I appreciate that this is how many trans and non-binary folk have to navigate our world. (There are reports of trans men, having just undergone top surgery to remove or reduce their breasts, being referred to as ‘she’ in the operating theatre.) Ultimately I’m not the best placed person to speak on this, because I’m cisgender—but I would be interested to hear what trans people make of The Raven Tower.

The ambition shown by Ann Leckie in The Raven Tower is a remarkable thing to read. I commend it highly and I hope that it becomes one of the classics of the genre.

The Dun Run

I am not a sports cyclist at all. I am slow. Most days I ride a Gazelle (a Dutch granny bike with a massive crate on the front) to work, at an average speed of around 13km/hr. That’s fine. But I’m also someone who likes doing stupid things occasionally.

I first heard about the Dunwich Dynamo, an annual, semi-organised overnight ride from London to Dunwich in Suffolk several years ago. This year seemed like as good a time as any to actually attempt it: I had a free weekend, I’d done some longer rides in the run-up and wasn’t concerned about my ability to not complete the ride. Paul Battley’s and Nat Buckley’s write-ups of the 2016 ride were helpful, as was the advice I got from various folks on Twitter when I sent out a call for suggestions.

It was fun! It was exhausting. It was also a bit of a disaster for me: it took me longer than I expected to get to Dunwich, I took more than I really needed, and I left later than planned, so I only arrived at around 11:45am. But I made it. I’m writing these notes up for the benefit of anyone else who wants to try it, and for myself when I inevitably try and do it again.

Continue reading The Dun Run

The Balearics or Bust: London to Mallorca without flying

Every year, my company downs tools for a week and decamps to a hotel for a week of training and an internal conference. Usually, if it’s in mainland Europe, that involves flying.

I try to avoid it. I hate the rigmarole of flying. Partly because airports are awful places seemingly designed to induce maximum stress; partly because I’m increasingly concerned about the environmental impact (there’s a case for the Swedish flygskam movement becoming more widespread.)

This year, I worked out a route from London to Palma de Mallorca using The Man in Seat 61’s guide to travelling to Spain by train. The route seemed simple enough:

  1. Travel by Eurostar from London to Paris;
  2. Cross Paris to the Gare de Lyon, and take a TGV to Barcelona;
  3. Take an overnight ferry from Barcelona to Palma.

I left my flat just after 8:15am on Saturday, taking a suitcase and a backpack. I live in Stratford, which means I’m very lucky to have the High Speed 1 service to St. Pancras. Getting to the Eurostar in time to check in was pretty easy, even if the security check was a pain.

Continue reading The Balearics or Bust: London to Mallorca without flying

A ride up Cake Mountain

There is no mountain actually called Cake Mountain. There is, however, the village of Upshire in Essex, where the Newham Cyclists Cake Mountain Ride took me today.

We started by heading up the River Lea navigation, an annoyingly narrow towpath with far too many sharp corners, and steep inclines, and unnecessary ‘cyclists dismount’ signs. The poor surfaces were also the source of (at least) our first puncture of the ride.

I took my new Temple Cycles bike on the ride (now the dynamo has been fixed, after it broke down in Brighton.) The bike’s brilliant for this kind of light touring! It was better on the gravelly towpath than I expected on 28mm tyres, but I was glad to get back onto bonded gravel and asphalt. I was also grateful that I could easily turn the lights on for extra daytime visibility in some tunnels on the towpath. Dynamos are great.

Continue reading A ride up Cake Mountain

Good Riddance, not good enough

Theresa May will resign in two weeks, on 7th June. This means we shall soon have a new Prime Minister, chosen by the insular and geriatric Conservative Party membership rather than the public at large. All the while, the clock ticks down to the October Article 50 deadline (at the granting of which the European Council’s President remarked: “please do not waste this time.”)

Theresa May composed herself in her announcement until the final moment, where she tearfully spoke about her gratitude to “serve the country I love.” Part of me feels like I should feel sympathetic, or even sorry for her.

I can’t.

As hard as Theresa May’s job was; as much as Brexit was a poisoned chalice, a mirage where the end result could never please everyone; as much as she is just human… I truly cannot feel ‘sorry’ for Theresa May, the architect of the Home Office’s Hostile Environment policy.

I remember, as a student, sitting on the top deck of a number 25 bus into central London; white vans with a Home Office logo and the words “IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT” on the sides parked up at Whitechapel Market; a young woman sobbing as she rummaged for her documentation, surrounded by burly quasi-police ‘enforcement officers.’

I remember, when I lived in that little flat in Wanstead, seeing the infamous “racist vans” being driven around places where people of colour lived. I remember her snarling at human rights laws by repeating Nigel Farage’s (lying-by-omission) story about the shoplifter with the pet cat. I remember her Brexit red lines being parroted almost verbatim from the Daily Express, about ending free movement and deciding how we label our food.

It’s true that this is not all Theresa May’s doing. The last Labour government had a similar trajectory. I remember having to shell out a large amount of my total pay from my first summer job to apply for a passport, to prove to my employer that I had the right to work in the country. My British high commission birth certificate showing my birth to a British mother and a British father wasn’t good enough.

But still—I don’t feel sorry for Theresa May. I can only feel a distant pity, the kind displayed by Bilbo towards Gollum in The Hobbit. Pity for someone who, for so long, has seen people as fair game based on the circumstances and location of their birth. Pity for someone who stoked the flames of hatred, and cried when the house burned down.

I doubt she will go down in history as the worst Prime Minister of all time. That will, for now, go to David Cameron: the man who let xenophobic unrest within his own party tear the country apart, and then ran the other way. But he could easily be usurped by whoever succeeds Theresa May in a few months. Prime Minister Boris Johnson meeting President Trump? Not too long ago, it was a punchline—now it’s a nightmare within touching distance.