Book Review: The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Orbit (February 26, 2019)
Length: 432 pages
I am but a simple reader, with simple tastes. I can appreciate when an author tries different things, or when a novel tries to break out of its genre and stylistic norms. But at the end of the day, all I want to do is read a good story I can relate to and, above all else, enjoy. Which, unfortunately, was not The Raven Tower.
Thing is, this novel does in fact contain a fascinating premise: in a prosperous kingdom named Iraden, a god called the Raven watches and protects his land and its people, staving off all threats with his magic. But this protection comes at a price—one exacted in blood. To sustain the Raven’s power, a sacrifice must be offered by the ruler of Iraden known as the Raven’s Lease, a human chosen by the god to carry out his will in the mortal realm. As long as this tradition continues, the land remains safe and thriving.
But now, the power of the Raven is waning. Another god called the Strength and Patience of the Hill narrates this tale, watching events play out in its stonebound form. Iraden’s downfall begins as Mawat, the heir to the current Lease, returns home to find his father missing and the throne usurped by his uncle. In the middle of this chaos, an unassuming aide named Eolo tries to help Mawat reclaim his birthright, unwittingly stumbling upon a grave secret beneath the foundations of the Raven’s Tower.
Now here’s the rub: told in a mix of first and second person narration, you as the reader are essentially Eolo, and the narrator is the Strength and Patience of the Hill using its all-seeing gaze to tell you all that’s happening, what you are doing and thinking, and pretty much everything else there is to know about what’s going on. Not that you, as Eolo, can really be aware all the time that the god is speaking all the time, though. Like its name implies, the Strength and Patience of the Hill has also been around for a long, long time. It has seen quite a lot of things and it also isn’t shy about waxing poetic—to itself—about its age-old history and the past.
Consequently, I think the writing style will be the biggest point of contention for readers, and the determining factor in whether you will love this novel or hate it. Personally, I have a somewhat thorny relationship with the second-person narrative mode, though I concede that if used sparingly, or in specific situations that call for it, it can be very effective. Regrettably though, the way it was done here grated on my nerves like nails raked across a chalkboard. I’m not saying the idea wasn’t clever or that Leckie’s technique in employing it wasn’t skillful, but the constant distraction of it was mentally exhausting and frankly not very pleasant at all.
Which is why, as much as I wanted to like this novel, I struggled to connect with nearly every aspect of it. In particular, the characters were a bust. While you are supposed to be Eolo, use of the second person device immediately distances you from everything you do and everything you are supposed to be. From there, everything else failed to spark my interest, which is a shame because in theory, the inspiration behind the story and its lore is actually quite imaginative and compelling. Thematically, it reminded me a little of Joanne Harris’ The Gospel of Loki in that the narrative almost takes on a mythical quality, using the god-and-mortal relationship to explore concepts like power, knowledge and ideology through a philosophical lens. It’s just unfortunate that Leckie’s execution and interpretation did not work for me at all.
Bottom line? If a unique and an entirely different kind of fantasy is what you’re looking for, The Raven Tower is a book you might want to consider, but I also recommend reading samples or plenty of reviews to determine if the style is to your taste. Who knows, this could very well end up being your favorite book of the year. But if what you find strikes you as ludicrously complicated or irritating and awkward to the extreme, then it’s probably safe to say this novel is not for you. I have great admiration for Ann Leckie and think she’s a talented writer. I reasonably enjoyed reading her Imperial Radch trilogy and Provenance, though neither really blew me away, so it was initially my hope that her first foray into epic fantasy would be more my speed. But well, c’est la vie, as they say.