What a book! The Raven Tower is like no fantasy I’ve read before – it’s experimental, and kind of weird, but very powerful and philosophical.
Book: The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy provided free of charge by publisher for review. All opinions my own.
First things first – this book takes some time to settle into. It’s written from the perspective of a god who is a rock – so, who explores the story from outside the human experience. Also, this god is addressing one of the characters in the story, Eolo – so the whole thing is written in the second person. I found I had to really pay attention to get the narration straight in my head, as the ‘you’ being addressed is not, in fact, You The Reader, but it feels like it at first, which gives a strange feeling while reading it, as if you’ve been bumped on the head and a stranger is filling you in on things you probably ought to remember. After a few dozen pages, I found it flowed more naturally, and I was able to read more coherently – imagine it all as one long piece of speech, or a letter, and it makes a lot more sense. Because of this, I was worried to begin with that the whole book wouldn’t work for me – but once I’d settled into the narrative quirks, it really did.
I really liked The Strength and Patience of the Hill, who is the god character. The nature of all the gods in this book is fascinating – they are incredibly powerful, but also inextricably tied to humanity and the need for prayers and offerings. The more tidbits we found out about god culture and the relationships between them, the more interested I was – this almost, in places, reads like a history book or guidebook. It has a feel of deep world-building, and because the narrator is actually explaining things to Eolo that Eolo could never have known, it is almost an info-dump in places – but never a boring one. There is good reason for this information to be explained, and as a history and linguistics nerd who likes to know the workings of any given magic system, I really loved the sections where The Strength and Patience of the Hill sort of went off on one…
There are no chapters in this book, just short sections delineated with raven-shaped page breaks. This also helps with the feeling that this is all being told to you by an ancient mind that leaps from memory to memory. It does make it a little difficult to place some of the anecdotes in time, but it also creates a sense of the vast experience of The Strength and Patience of the Hill. When not discussing the workings of the universe, the story snippets follow the tale of Eolo and his lord, Mawat, as they wrangle with politics in a rather Hamlet-esque way. I didn’t find this as compelling as the philosophising – I think because, as I mentioned earlier, the narrator is rather detached from not only human emotions, but also human life and death. The Strength and Patience of the Hill is almost completely unfussed by human things – so the fact that Eolo is a trans man is mentioned as matter-of-factly as the fact that he had breakfast. Mawat’s grief and anger at his situation, which could have been a major emotional force in a conventionally written novel, is almost laughably pointless. Humans are weird to gods, really. You get a real sense of that. Also, rocks don’t really do anything fast.
I have a feeling that this book will be rather polarising – in a way, it is an interesting foil to The Gutter Prayer. In The Gutter Prayer, the gods are so overwhelming and the happenings so fast that you are somewhat bewildered; in The Raven Tower, the gods are much quieter and the action subtle, and you’re still somewhat bewildered. I can see people not liking either book, or saying they deviate too far from the normal conventions of the genre – but hey, I’m here for weird fiction. I thought this was fascinating. I wouldn’t like every book to be like this, but I think that The Raven Tower is brave and subtle and brilliant. Not every note hits perfectly, but you come away from it feeling like you’ve just heard something bewitching and definitely not human in origin. Four out of five cats!