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.