The guiding principle of The Raven Tower is to subvert convention. It is a book that tries its level best to take what you expect and follow it, to a point, after which it does something completely unanticipated. In the world of The Raven Tower, a primitive humanity struggles to survive with the help of numerous gods that dot the landscape. Gods can be anything, from a stone atop a hillside to a small snake, but all gods draw their power from belief and exercise it through language. Their personalities are as varied as those of any human group, but as a rule they spend their time helping humans in exchange for belief. Some of the more dictatorial gods style themselves rulers and make humans their subjects, but this is far from a one sided relationship. To quote the book’s dust jacket, “Gods meddle in the fates of men, men play with the fates of gods, and a pretender must be cast down from the throne”.
The city of Vastai is controlled by a god known as the Raven, the most powerful god in the land of Iraden. Everyone who travels to Vastai does so with a petition for the Raven, a wish they desperately hope the god will grant with their almost limitless power. Unfortunately, the Lord Mawat and his aide Eolo are in for a surprise when they arrive in Vastai to discover that the Raven’s instrument is dead, Mawat’s father has disappeared, and a usurper has claimed the throne. It’s a whodunnit where the victim is a god, the narrator might be insane, the murderer has impossibly vanished, and the answers to the biggest questions are hidden thousands of years in the past. Vastai is a city rebuilt on its own ruins a thousand times, if Eolo and Mawat are not careful, it may become ruins once again.
This is an odd book; there is no denying that. It is likely one of the most unusual things I have ever read, but Ann Leckie is like that. Her style is reminiscent of such great authors as Ursula K. Le Guin in the way that she seems to hate the expected and the mundane, caring only passingly for the reader. The Raven Tower feels less like a novel and more like a little world unto itself, a story with an intrinsic worth independent of the reader and a complete unwillingness to advertise itself. This is the story The Raven Tower tells, whether you like it or not. The book feels almost truculent, as though with every sentence it is informing you that if you do not like it then it does not like you either. It is a murder mystery told by an angry god that may or may not be talking to themself, with a narrative structure that skips across eons like a stone skipping across the surface of a pond. It is a classic whodunnit with the addition of an unreliable narrator, Machiavellian intrigue, and a web of mysteries that leaves most of its own questions unanswered. It is a frustrating read, but if you can see past its thorny edges The Raven Tower hides some incredibly beautiful writing and a gripping story that you cannot put down. In an era where all fantasy seems basically the same, The Raven Tower is exactly what is needed. Above all, it is daring. It is a one off novel that makes no attempt to spin itself into a money-making series and is brave enough to break out of the walls of its genre to do something genuinely new.