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.

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.

Eurovision 2019: let’s talk about spreadsheets

I love Eurovision. I enjoyed last night’s show (the music, Australia’s bendy-poles staging, the drama when Hatari staged a mini-protest against the oppression of the Palestinian people.) I wasn’t surprised the UK came last (a song that would’ve done well twenty years ago, performed competently, but anodyne and ultimately basic.) I was pleased the Netherlands won.

One thing I did not like was the new voting system. The method used for determining the final scores was the same as it has been since 2016, but the phone votes were announced in a different order. As reported by wiwibloggs:

Scores will still be calculated in the same manner as the last three years. However, we’ll have to wait until later in the voting sequence to see if an act has flopped with the televoters. And should an act be battered by the juries, they’ll receive their televote boost much sooner.

This may make for ‘better television,’ but I don’t think it worked in practice. You may have done well with the juries, but terribly with the televote—or you may have bombed with the juries, and relying on the public to send you up the leaderboard. Under the old system, you would’ve at least been put out of your misery quickly: now, you’re left to stew, and believe you could still win.

I particularly didn’t enjoy John Lundvik from Sweden being strung along for five minutes, being told ‘you need two hundred and fifty-three points’—and ultimately only receiving ninety-three. His crestfallen face has already become a meme.

Similar things happened when Malta, North Macedonia, and the Czech Republic received their phone votes. The director presumably made the choice to cut to the acts’ disappointed faces. This was unnecessary, and compounded the feeling that the new system was unnecessarily cruel.

Ultimately, Eurovision is supposed to be an exercise in cross-cultural appreciation and togetherness. I don’t think X Factor-style cutaways were necessarily in line with that. I watch Eurovision for fun and to feel fuzzy about Europe—not to watch people’s dreams getting dashed before my eyes.

I would hope that the EBU and the Dutch producers revert to the 2016 rules next year. But who knows? The Netherlands is the country that gave us Deal or No Deal.

The Power, by Naomi Alderman

I’ve finished listening to the audiobook of The Power, narrated by Adjoa Andoh. I could write thousands of words about how she’s one of my favourite actors and narrators, one of the most exciting British creative voices working today, but I’ll just say she’s phenomenal and leave it at that.

I enjoyed The Power. Overnight, every fifteen-year-old girl on Earth develops the ability to send an electrical charge from her fingertips, generated in an electrical organ on her collarbone (the ‘skein.’) As the power spreads, and grows, the world order is upended. Rape culture is inverted. It’s a difficult read (or listen) at times, as the violence (some of it sexual violence) intensifies and plumbs ever murkier depths.

There were things I wish it explored more. There’s no real discussion of what happens to trans women or trans men. That said, we do see get to see a few men with a skein, including one intersex character (whom the book clumsily describes as having ‘abnormalities’ in his chromosomes.)

At times, The Power feels like a well-researched historical novel. This is intentional, and the framing device (I won’t spoil it) is supremely clever. The final passage is phenomenal, and ties up the novel as a masterwork of satire. This is a truly ambitious novel: as social commentary, as science fiction, as imagined future history, and as side-splittingly, piercingly, joltingly funny satire.