We talk about religion in terms of comforting believes or offering rules for how to live, but it wasn’t always that way. (In the West, at least. I’m not well-read enough to make this generalization global.) When we read the legends and myths of ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, and pre-Christian Scandinavia, our relationship to the gods follows two paths. On one path, the relationship is transactional. We pray or make an offering to ask a god to do us a favor. The other path usually runs in parallel to the first path. On the second path, humans would do well do duck and cover because the ways of the gods are inscrutable, destructive, and rarely to our benefits. Ann Leckie’s brilliant novel, The Raven Tower, harks back to the days of these early gods.
The Raven Tower is told in the second person—which used to bother me, until I read N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy and saw it done right. An entity (later revealed to be a god) tells us two stories, told in tandem with each other. One story is the god’s own. The god woke millennia ago under the sea. When the waters retreated, it found itself on a hill and worshipped by people who called it the Strength and Patience of the Hill. This god stays out of human affairs for the most part; it sees no reason to get involved because these affairs don’t really matter in the long run. It only gets involved when a new god from the South, the Raven of Iraden, takes on the northern gods. It’s not clear for most of the book how the events of the god’s own story meet up with the second, but savvy readers can have a guess.
The second story told by the Strength and Patience features Eolo, a transgender man, who followed his commander to the capital city. This commander, Mawat, has been told that his father is dying, which means that it’s time for Mawat to take the role of Raven’s Lease. The rulers of the Iraden borrow the power of the Raven to maintain their dominance in the north. They’ve done so for a long time but, when Eolo and Mawat show up, they (and we) learn that the wheels are rapidly starting to come off. The role of Lease has been usurped. There are strangers from the south with an unknown mission and help from a new god. All of this is complicated by Mawat’s temper, which accelerates the speed with which the wheels are spinning out of control.
The Raven Tower is a hell of a ride. I loved everything about it: the deft hand with backstory, the examination of the relationships of gods and their worshippers, and the matter-of-fact way that Eolo’s gender is handled throughout the book. I sincerely hope that Leckie continues Eolo’s journey. Not only did I love the character, but there is also a lot of unfinished business in this book. Fantasy readers, I think, will devour this book for its action sequences and tangled politics. I think this might be my new go-to recommendation for fantasy readers.