“Can you hear me, Eolo? Can you hear me now?
I am talking to you.”
–The Raven Tower
The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie’s first fantasy novel, uses the framework of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to create an enthralling new tale. A king is dead, an uncle has usurped a throne, and a prince is going mad with the injustice. If you squint you can see Ophelia, and Rosencranz & Guildenstern, and Horatio among the other expected players. Yet, there is more going on in the kingdom of Iraden than a simple coup. The mystery starts from the first sentence: “I first saw you when you rode out of the forest, past the cluster of tall, bulge-eyed offering stakes that mark the edge of the forest, your horse at a walk.” The entire book is narrated by an unseen someone and the reader comes to learn “you” in this case refers to Eolo, chief aide to Prince Mawat. Eolo and Mawat are returning at speed to the kingdom of Vastai so that Mawat can take his father’s place as Raven’s Lease. In Iraden, the Lease is a ruler who has a direct line to the god called the Raven. Raven protects Iraden and communicates with the Lease its decrees. When the time comes, the Lease willingly sacrifices themself for the Raven, increasing the power of the god. It has been a system that has worked for decades. Until now.
The ruling Lease, Mawat’s father, has gone missing. His uncle Hibal sits on the throne and refuses to relinquish it to Mawat. Adding to the intrigue are the foreign visitors that were told they had safe passage thru the harbor but are now being denied an audience with the acting Lease. An army is gathering on the borders of Iraden and poised to invade. Against a ticking clock, Eolo investigates what is happening in Vastai and along with Mawat tries to set events right.
The book would be good but nothing special if that is all the story was. However, The Raven Tower is not retelling Hamlet and the Raven is not the only god in this story. A vast number of large and small gods subsist on the offerings of humans and are engaged in a war. These gods are less Greek mythology and more aligned with eastern religions. Think of the elemental gods from Spirited Away rather than Clash of the Titans. Gods can speak to their priests through marked tiles that require interpretation. Convenient if the priest wants to deceive their audience and purport a god is speaking. A god unleashes its power through speech. If a god speaks something it must be true. If that thing is not true, the universe will bend to re-make itself to that truth. If the truth the god is proclaiming is beyond its power, it can be killed. So a god’s speech is littered with “Here is a story I have heard…” or “I have heard it said…”. Everything is couched in vague terms to protect the god, they only speak in declarative if they must.
The writing style of “you did this” and “I saw you do that” was difficult to adjust to. However, once I did I was enraptured by The Raven Tower. It is an exquisitely told tale and engages the reader quickly to start asking questions. As the story barrels towards the conclusion one central question becomes so prominent even the characters start asking it. The answer to the question, and the way Leckie builds the suspense and tension, combine for a finale that is shocking, haunting, and completely satisfying. So much so I re-read the last three pages immediately after finishing the book in the wee hours of the morning, and again the next day. The writing sent chills down my spine every time.