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The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie2 stars

Buy from IndieBoundThe Raven Tower is one of those impeccably crafted epic fantasy novels in which characters we’re given no particular reason to root for fight for stakes we’re given little reason to care about. This might be a thoroughly unremarkable thing if the book was yet another mid-list debut. But it’s the fantasy debut of none other than Ann Leckie, a writer of enormous and richly deserved acclaim, and that makes it so much more disappointing. It’s a book I found so very frustrating because all of the pieces are there. They just never construct a satisfying whole.

It’s set in a world inhabited by both people and beings they call gods. Our narrator is one of these gods, an entity called The Strength and Patience of the Hill, which has taken possession of an enormous boulder. It’s just as well this is our narrator, because it’s really all the book has to offer by way of an interesting and appealing character. Leckie plays around a bit with speculation on what kinds of entities these so-called gods really are. There’s never an explanation of their origin, except in the case of another god, the Myriad, who is hinted at being some kind of extraterrestrial.

An element of mystery is often helpful in evoking a sense of the otherworldly. But in an epic fantasy, the more you convey that your world has a magic system under which everything works, readers will want to have some kind of grasp of the whys and wherefores. And I frankly would have appreciated a bit more exploration into the relationship between the gods and humans, particularly an understanding of how these gods are nurtured by the worship and sacrifice, especially blood sacrifice, of the humans they serve. The closest Leckie gets to anything in line with her customary brilliance is in a passage where Patience painstakingly figures out how to communicate with its young priestess, using tiny stones. In these scenes, we see that the gods of this world started out sort of stumbling around learning things, no differently than the people. Patience has to learn to empathize with and care for the humans who worship it. And that’s actually terrific, because not only does it make Patience enormously appealing as a character, these human weaknesses make Leckie’s gods as a whole more believable. But it still whet my appetite for more information that never came.

Still, gods and humans have to coexist for one another’s survival. There are huge, powerful, ancient gods, as well as small gods whose powers might be limited to specific areas, or even specific physical items, like kitchen knives or boats. And these gods end up in conflict, depending on whatever conflicts the humans who worship them are currently embroiled in. This creates a specific political landscape for the gods, forcing them to enter into alliances and share their powers. Powerful gods can simply take the power from lesser gods to enhance their own, and in some cases can even “speak the death” of other gods, although it drains their power immensely for them to do so.

Vastai is a city in the land of Iraden, on the coast of a narrow strait separating the Southern Sea from the Northern Ocean. Its patron god is the Raven, who rules through a human proxy called the Raven’s Lease. Our human viewpoint character is Eolo, an aide to Mawat, the Lease’s Heir, whose father is the current Lease. Or at least he was. As the story begins, Mawat and Eolo arrive in Vastai to discover that Mawat’s father has mysteriously disappeared and, inexplicably, Mawat’s uncle Hibal has replaced him as the new lease. None of this should be possible. There can be no new Lease unless the previous Lease has willingly sacrificed himself to make way for his heir, and the Heir is meant to be Mawat. But everyone insists Mawat’s father is not dead, only missing, meaning Hibal ought to have died the instant he assumed the office of the Lease. So it’s all very bewildering, and Eolo finds himself almost singlehandedly trying to solve the mystery and avert an even greater crisis.

This is all a very sound premise. But there were just too many choices Leckie made in its execution that frustrated me. Let’s start with her characters.

Eolo, as I mentioned, is our protagonist, and Leckie has the book narrated by the god Patience in second person voice, addressing Eolo directly. In this way, Eolo is meant literally to be a reader surrogate. We’re not meant simply to identify with Eolo as our hero, but almost be the character. Perhaps Leckie thought what worked for N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season would work for her. But Eolo is a bit of a nonentity, really, a character who exhibits little in the way of inner strength until such time as the plot requires him to. He is unfailingly loyal to Mawat, which I couldn’t understand, because Mawat’s a complete asshole, a self-absorbed, petulant manchild whose reaction to finding himself usurped by his uncle is to sit in the town square stark naked in a passive-aggressive sulk. This sort of behavior is somewhat at odds with an earlier scene in which we see Mawat acting as commander of the Iraden armies, taking a thoughtful and measured approach to his military tactics, and berating one of his subordinates for acting rashly.

We get hints that Eolo’s devotion might be due to unrequited love, but hints are all they are. Apparently, Eolo was assigned female at birth, though he now identifies as a man. But this aspect of his character is as undeveloped as the rest. Beyond the immediate scope of the plot we get too little of a sense of Eolo as a person. Mostly, he spends the book doing what he’s told, until he starts asserting himself towards the climax, and he does this simply because he’s one of the only characters at this point who isn’t totally unhinged.

I also found it hard to buy into the whole concept of the Raven’s Lease. This is a position of power that requires whomever holds it to commit suicide upon the death of the Raven’s Instrument, an actual raven into which the Raven god takes physical form. This self-sacrifice will enhance the power of the god while its next Instrument still in the egg. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why anyone, even an egoist like Mawat, would want to be the Raven’s Lease, especially since the Lease has to share power with the Council of Directions and the Mothers of the Silent, an order who are basically ambassadors of a neighboring god who controls a nearby forest and helps protect Vastai from invasion. I mean, it would be one thing if the life of the Lease was one of unbridled, hedonistic absolute authority (and we do learn that Mawat’s father drew a lot of opposition for attempting to rule this way), but no, he has to work under a system of separation of powers. Hardly seems worth the trouble for such a short-term job.

Leckie does at least manage to give all of this an undercurrent of timely political satire, addressing the idea of unqualified leaders who are in it for themselves, seeking to subvert established power structures to set themselves up as dictatorial authorities. But then, having to kill yourself when your time is up might well be something that would understandably push a leader towards that kind of power grab.

The story unspools across two timelines: the present day, and the distant past, in which we see the god Patience becoming embroiled in a war between the gods of Vastai and those of a neighboring city, Ard Vusktia, which sits across the strait from Vastai. These scenes are not only more interesting because Patience is more interesting, but because they offer the novel’s few moments of true epic fantasy spectacle when these gods go to war. The two timelines will, of course, converge, and while the results do lead to a happy ending — again, because we’re really only encouraged to find Patience likable — they’re not exactly surprising, even though Leckie would very much like us to be dropping our jaws in surprise. But any halfway smart reader will know how everything is going to wrap up long before we actually get there.

So The Raven Tower is a letdown, because it comes from an author from whom our expectations are justifiably higher than average. It’s a book where, as I said, all the elements are there, enough of them that I really, really want to be sitting here unreservedly recommending it to all of you. But I can’t. At least it’s a relief that this book is a stand-alone rather than the launch of a series. Because while I would like to see Ann Leckie take another stab at epic fantasy whenever she feels good and ready, as far as this saga is concerned, I’ve got to say “Nevermore.”