Monday, 21 January 2019

Review: The Raven Tower

The Raven Tower The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always seem to begin my reviews of Ann Leckie's books by remarking that she has the fortunate/unfortunate situation of having written a first book so amazing that all her others will be compared to it; and that so far, for me, none of her other books have quite equalled it. That's the case again with this one, her first fantasy novel. It's good - I'd even say very good - but in the shadow of her first book, not quite as outstanding.

Once again, it plays with point of view. This time, Leckie has chosen to write much of it in the difficult and much-despised second person. That can easily be a gimmick, and while reading I was never 100% convinced that it wasn't, but thinking about it, and especially reflecting on the ending, I've decided it was justified. The narrator is a god, who fills in a lot of important historical backstory in first person - backstory that isn't available to the protagonist in any way. But for most of the book, the god is largely passive, participating in events but not obviously driving them; it's the "you" character who is the protagonist, speaking to people and doing things and taking risks.

Once again, it plays with gender; the protagonist is a trans man, which is fairly incidental as far as the plot goes, but important to him.

Once again, it manages to both be personal and also have epic scope, which is a difficult balancing act. It can all too easily drop into a Great Man version of history with a full-on Chosen One whose every action is fated and bears vast significance; yet Leckie manages to hold it back from that precipice, to show us people with flaws and insecurities who are nevertheless able to participate in momentous events. In this case, the twist at the end gives rise to doubts about who was actually the protagonist after all.

On the face of it, it's a relatively simple story. The protagonist is a soldier, aide to the heir to the position of Raven's Lease, a kind of proxy of the god known as the Raven. They arrive back from the disputed southern border, whence they have been recalled because the current Raven's Lease, the heir's father, was unwell, to discover a Hamletesque coup has been enacted and the heir's uncle has taken over as Lease. For the good of everyone, he assures anyone who will listen.

The heir is petulant and brooding, the aide (Horatio, presumably) patient and effective, the Ophelia character sensible and competent - and very sane. While the Hamlet parallels are obvious (the Ophelia's counsellor father even gets stabbed, and the heir is blamed), they aren't followed slavishly; each element has a twist to it, and the ending is quite different.

Interwoven with all of this is the millenia-long backstory of the struggles and conquests of the gods, which turns out to be a lot more significant than I initially realised to what seems to be the main plot.

It's a clever, complex idea, well executed, which is to say that it's an Ann Leckie book. I dithered about whether to give it five stars, because the ending subverted my narrative expectations so thoroughly as to be a kind of disappointment, but for sheer quality I'm going to award the fifth star.

I received a pre-release copy from Netgalley for review.

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