The Raven Tower
March 15, 2019 8:40 PM - by Ann Leckie - Subscribe

Gods meddle in the fates of men, men play with the fates of gods, and a pretender must be cast down from the throne in this masterful first fantasy novel from Ann Leckie, New York Times bestselling author and winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards.

For centuries, the kingdom of Iraden has been protected by the god known as the Raven. He watches over his territory from atop a tower in the powerful port of Vastai. His will is enacted through the Raven's Lease, a human ruler chosen by the god himself. His magic is sustained via the blood sacrifice that every Lease must offer. And under the Raven's watch, the city flourishes. But the power of the Raven is weakening. A usurper has claimed the throne. The kingdom borders are tested by invaders who long for the prosperity that Vastai boasts. And they have made their own alliances with other gods. It is into this unrest that the warrior Eolo--aide to Mawat, the true Lease--arrives. And in seeking to help Mawat reclaim his city, Eolo discovers that the Raven's Tower holds a secret. Its foundations conceal a dark history that has been waiting to reveal itself... and to set in motion a chain of events that could destroy Iraden forever.
posted by Chrysostom (21 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This was...odd.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:44 PM on March 15, 2019

I'm not a big fantasy consumer but really liked this. Probably because it's that kind of rules-based fantasy that's basically SF from another universe. I enjoyed the narrative voice she gave to the Strength and Patience of the Hill (is that right?) -- it reads to me like it really wants to be overtly sarcastic a lot of the time but can't because it has to be so careful about what it says. Dunno if she intends it as a one-off, but I'd be curious to see how the conflict in it plays out over a longer series.

If I have a knock, it's that there's not *THAT* much daylight between a god in this book and a ship's/station's AI in the Radchaai books.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 10:04 AM on March 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

I loved this. First five-star I've given this year.

I was uncertain at first and the lack of chapters bothered me (I'm not sure why, but that does). It took me a while to sync to the storytelling cadence and pace. Once I did, I just moved right along.

The ending was very satisfying to me -- she had constructed the storytelling and pace to end precisely on that note. That finish made the book, in my opinion. I've rarely read a book that built to and planted its finish so well.


I also kept wondering if I should be recognizing some allegories in this. I fairly quickly grokked that it's really about forms of imperialism, but I often felt like I was missing some allusions. In theme, it's not unlike The Traitor Baru Cormorant. And it's heartbreaking that the story is told second-person to the apparent protagonist, the character with whom the reader identifies. It's ingenious, really.

Finally, I had no clue where the story was going at any point along the way. Not just where it ended and became what it truly was, but from one event to the next.

I've been so impressed by Leckie.

"...Strength and Patience of the Hill (is that right?)"


I didn't get the sense that it was restraining sarcasm -- with regard to Eolo, I felt it was quite sincerely sympathetic. It "speaks" his safe passage away at the end.

Nevertheless, as we learn more of its history we become more and more aware that there must to be a long-simmering rage: beware the wrath of a god named The Strength and Patience of the Hill. So a lot of its narrative which seems sympathetic to certain characters (primarily the prince, Mawat) must actually be very ironic. Given Eolo's devotion to the prince, and the echoes of Hamlet, we're set up to root for Mawat and his cause even if he seems to be kind of a dick. After all, everyone he's opposed to is worse.

If not sarcasm, at the very least we learn at the end that there must be a lot of subtext we (mostly) were unlikely to notice until the end. I suspect a re-read would be interesting for this reason.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:45 AM on March 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


Oh, also I love how the swan-god story appears so early in the book. I should have seen the foreshadowing, but The Strength and Patience of the Hill was so careful, quite aware of the story, that I took it for granted that it would avoid that fate. Which it did, but really only because of the Raven's ignorance of its true nature -- both that it was a god and not merely a godspoken object, but also one of the Ancient Ones. (Which, also, is obvious in retrospect but since the god wasn't quite sure who the Ancient Ones were and didn't consider itself among their number, I just accepted this at face value.)

It's also very interesting that a book titled The Raven Tower, with a Raven god that's apparently an active character almost through the entire book, never actually has the Raven appear. We learn nothing of it, never hear a single word from it. We get a (terrifying) glimpse of The Silent in the recounting of the doomed battle, but it's otherwise much more notable for its absence. We also never learned which god -- or anything about it --who empowered the raiders, the one Patience spoke dead.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:05 PM on March 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ivan: I think we're on the same page and I was just being sloppy with words.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:14 AM on March 17, 2019

We learn nothing of it, never hear a single word from it.

Well, we do hear second hand the invasion story as the Raven tells it.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:43 PM on March 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think we assume everything "under the fold" is spoilers, right? Spoilers:

incredible book, incredible story. Great characters. I'm so glad it did not dip its toes using a god's words about gender to make a statement about Eolo (e.g. no man can defeat me etc.)

I did not pick up on the subtext about imperialism. I would be interested to hear more of how you interpreted it. To me, it was just a context for the story, rather than an allegory or statement. If anything, the statement was "be careful of old structures and old promises, because they may be less strong than you think."

The ending was AMAZING. I was so hyped to see "How are they going to pull a win here?" only to discover that it this is not a destiny, this is a perfect storm. This is not the story of a person or a god or a victory, this is the story of what happened at the heart of what everyone else was trying to do. This is a story by the folks to the south, coming north to conqueror, or the folks to the north, unshackling themselves. But they were context for the story, the real story, of defeat and ending and completion.
posted by rebent at 12:20 PM on March 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

I loved this.


If you didnt see themes of imperialism, I’m guessing you didn’t read the Radchaaai trilogy? Along with subverting gender, it’s one of the hallmarks of Leckie’s writing.

I love how she challenges me. I read Provenance a couple weeks ago, and unlike Ancillary Justice, her two most recent books took a while for me to get into them. Something about not knowing where the story is going. I was never going to *stop*, but it wasn’t until I realized that the tower was made of Strength and Patience (or somehow else, SaP was using the stones of Vastai for its own perception) that I got invested and obsessed with continuing.

I’m not particularly interested in a direct sequel to this book... but I’ll still be one of the first to read it. I’m all-in for Ann Leckie’s storytelling.
posted by itesser at 9:28 PM on March 18, 2019

"I was never going to *stop*, but it wasn’t until I realized that the tower was made of Strength and Patience (or somehow else, SaP was using the stones of Vastai for its own perception) that I got invested and obsessed with continuing."

The Strength and Patience of the Hill has never been anything other than a large disc-shaped black rock (with silver veins?). At the bottom of the ocean, remaining above the ice during the ice ages, then carried south to the war. Raven has it buried below the tower in Vastia, rotating. As it had done during the war in the city across the strait, when it was able to diffuse its consciousness through the stone of the city, it did this through the stone of the tower. But it remained embodied solely in the black disc, intact.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:15 PM on March 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Why was Eolo so devoted to Mawat? Was is just because Mawat, with full knowledge, accepted¹ him for who he was (and used his power to demand others at least pretend to)? That isn't a small thing, but Mawat was a jerk and a man child. If there was any mention of an oath given, I missed it. Maybe, as sad as it may be, Mawat was the best (or closet thing to a) friend he had?

I also really enjoyed the economic exploration of prayer and divine power (and how the gods were thusly intertwined with the human economy). (Most of) the gods' power is derived from human belief, kind of like corporations; thus we come back around to imperialism (as corporations were an important part of the imperialist tool box).

¹ Mostly at least; The exchange near the beginning where Mawat offers to 'fix'² Eolo once he assumes the bench didn't seem like the first time the idea was discussed.

² I don't remember exactly how it was phrased.
posted by thedward at 4:17 PM on March 23, 2019

Having reread, twice, I still fundamentally do not understand WHY Hill is telling the story to Eolo, what purpose that serves, he's so explicit about how dangerous his speech is (to himself) and so careful throughout not to use it unnecessarily and I spent the entire book waiting for the reveal of why he was telling the story and... nothing. No explanation at the end whatsoever. Did I miss something that went right over my head? Was there any purpose at all to that narrative framing beyond concealing certain tricks?

Like, I really liked this book, (and also I'd probably read Ann Leckie's grocery lists at this point, lbr) but I am finding that specific loose end super frustrating and annoying to me.



PSA: There are a ton of short stories set in this universe! here's a website listing all of what's available of Leckie's short stories free online. A small sprinkle are not set in this universe, but the vast majority are, and the themes they deal with intersect really interestingly with the book-- I read them after the book, and really wonder if my experience of the book would have been different had I read them before.
posted by Cozybee at 8:42 AM on April 4, 2019 [7 favorites]

Um really important note to my PSA: some of the short stories really need trigger warnings and do not have. (I'm sorry, I no longer remember for all of them, but the snake's wife has rape, violence, and non-consensensual sex surgery.)
posted by Cozybee at 6:15 PM on April 4, 2019

My take is that the story is a sort of ... self-talk. I do that all the time, where I imagine conversations with people I am very drawn towards. Hill is clearly a big fan of Eolo, and probably lonely (although they would probably deny it). I bet Hill spends an awful lot of time reminiscing, observing, longing.
posted by rebent at 6:26 AM on April 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Patience also seems to appreciate an honest councilor, and Eolo surely is one. It’s extremely apt that pretty much everyone tells Mawat that Eolo is his best resource, and Mawat even agrees, but, at the end, he just can’t not ignore Eolo in his selfish pursuit of what he wants (as do all the Leases). Really, this is a better subversion of tropes than A Game of Thrones, and much, much shorter.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:50 PM on June 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Rebent: upon third reread, my problem with your theory is that Hill will say things like "sorry for rambling, I'm used to thinking to myself. Anyway, to continue the story..."
posted by Cozybee at 4:46 AM on June 19, 2019

Oh, CozyBee, thank you for sharing the short stories. I put them on my kindle to read on vacation and they are FANTASTIC. I was stunned how long Leckie has been working on this gods universe. I am so excited for her to produce more in this realm.
posted by rebent at 7:14 AM on June 19, 2019

I have finished my third reread. So here are some of the things I missed that I got to notice this time around:

1. Hill actually says they don't know why they feel compelled to tell Eolo this story. So I guess there's no answer beyond that? I find that a bit disappointing, but less so on the third reread when I was prepared for it-- my first read through, the answer to that question was my primary impetus to keep reading, whereas on the third reread I just wanted to relive the satisfaction of Hill's victory
2. Towards the beginning, Hill lists off stories it could tell. They sound like they're supposed to be about Eolo and Mawat, and only on reread did I notice that several are double entendres about Hill, and especially the one Hill chooses to go with - "once someone risked their life out of duty and loyalty to a friend".
3. Overall the ending landed better for me this time around, specifically the speaking Eolo to safety which on first read I'd found kind of cruel coming from the engineer of the destruction of most of what Eolo loved. I still didn't appreciate the, imo, trite parallelism of "after all he tried to kill me", still didn't land right. And of course it's quite abrupt, no denouement, which is sort of forced by the narrative voice. I hope someone makes a fanart of Hill and Myriad, reunited and comfortably chatting. I do wonder if Hill will travel back North-- mostly I'd assume so, but I wonder if their preference changed over time and they might want something more trafficked.

Man, do I appreciate how Leckie books have such solid reread value.
posted by Cozybee at 2:56 PM on June 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

I assumed that Hill, Strength and Patience of the, feels drawn to Eolo and compelled to speak to him because he reminds Hill of the priests of old, especially the priest who Hill especially liked who died in the raid. At one point Hill mentions that many of the priests of old are trans or defy traditional gender norms, which IIRC is also true in real indigenous cultures.

I wondered what it was about the stone that seemed so obviously godlike but then you find out that physically it's a black stone with silver-white veins sitting on top of a hill and dirt and ice never touch it, yeah I'd try to teach it language too if I was the priest of a tribe of nomadic reindeer hunters.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:40 AM on August 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

OK SO I've thought more about this and I love the implications of this world. For instance: We know that the battling Ancient Ones that Strength and Patience of the Hill (SPH) witnessed eons ago wielded incredible power without any human source. We also know that SPH seemed to have discovered a way to harvest godly power from mechanical energy. So it seems likely that gods, or at least Ancient Ones (If there even is a difference between the two), can draw on any form of energy if they have the know-how. There's even the implication that while SPH is being turned and making "food" for the city that there's a connection between the chemical energy contained in food offerings and the godly power gained by the god. Likewise, it's easier to replicate the chemical process conducted by plants than trying to rip apart and push together atoms of water and air into atoms of food.

So what would happen if a god were to say something like "The hydrogen contained in this cubic meter of water shall fuse together into helium?" What would happen if a god said that but also said "And all the energy released by this shall add to my own power?" Seems like the god that figures out that trick might do pretty well for itself.

Gods can speak each other dead, as was demonstrated multiple times. What would happen if a god spoke another one to life? Obviously if it were a killed god the speaker would have to expend whatever power is required to make those words true, which could be quite a lot. But what if a god said "A new god is in this stick?" Would it take a lot of power to make a new god? What if the new god was very, very weak? I suppose there's no shortage of gods and probably some other mechanism to make gods (Likely, humans worshipping a non-god will turn that into a god). Is that the difference between Ancient Ones and gods like the healing dog and the Silent and the Raven? Is it weird that it seems like it should be easier for a god to speak another god to life than speak a human to life?

Also, speaking of the Raven, when exactly did the Raven die? SPH said that the Raven was getting progressively weaker as time went on because they had foolishly tried to speak SPH dead but for whatever reason (SPH's continual supply of power from being turned and/or status as an Ancient One) couldn't follow through and as such was constantly being drained of power trying to fulfil their statement. So did they die sometime in the past, before the events described in the book, and SPH alone was acting as the Raven? Or did the Raven die when Uncle Shithead killed the Instrument and denied the Raven the life of the Lease? I suppose it doesn't matter either way, since by the nature of the agreement SPH had to do the bidding of whoever turned it for as long as it was turned, and since the Raven set up a mechanical method of turning SPH would be stuck doing the Raven's bidding long after the Raven was dead.

Finally, I've never seen a group of entities in greater need of a contract lawyer. I get that SPH made the agreement it did because it was afraid if it didn't agree to anything the other gods would try to take their power by force. Still, the agreement SPH did make wasn't that great. It had an escape clause, but not a very good one. How about including a clause that the god you're lending power to can never take more than a fixed percentage, or never take so much that you die, or even better if they do try to take that much the agreement is nullified? Or that both parties have to agree to the use of power? I suppose the problem is to learn the ins and outs of making agreements with gods or humans you have to learn by experience, and the more agreements you make the more likely you are to make a stupid agreement that gets you killed.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:56 PM on August 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

I have re-read this book three or four times now, and I love the discussion going on here. I have a few theories and observations of my own.

Strength and Patience of the Hill establishes early in the book that it often works its will on the world around it without speaking, often without even realizing that it is doing so. It did this for millions of years before even encountering humans, to move itself from the ocean floor, to stay above the ice during the ice ages, and to place itself atop its hill as the glaciers recede. I think it is possible that we could infer some divine aid to Eolo and Mawat. Coincidences and lucky breaks may actually be subtle nudges of divine intervention.

Regarding the affinity of Strength and Patience of the Hill for Eolo - In addition to Eolo being the sort of person who might have been a priest in the north, I also notice that Eolo's personality is very similar to the Strength and Patience of the Hill. Both are careful and deliberate, but also act decisively when necessary. Both have a strong bond of loyalty to their friends. Both conceal hidden strength and competence, and take advantage of being underestimated by their adversaries.

I think there are hints in the book that the Myriad has been working against the gods of Iraden since the Raven's victory over Ard Vusktia. I think it's mentioned that since that war, the Tel have gradually become more organized and determined to test the borders of Iraden. The explorers from Xulah seem to have a strong interest in discovering and exploiting natural resources in the north. Maybe that is just the inevitable logic of expansionism. It seems plausible thought that the Myriad, who had an interest in discovering and developing the resources of the north lands, convinced the Xulahns that there was opportunity there. Finally, the Myriad's rescue fleet appears at almost the same time as the Tel invasion force - that seems like too much of a coincidence to not be coordinated.

As for the Raven - my reading is that he is alive, but very weak, for most of the book. The answers obtained by Hibal and Radihaw seem like answers the Raven would give. "There will be a reckoning", reads as a threat from the Raven to Hibal. "Can you hear me below?" seem like an attempt by the Raven to urge Mawat rescue his father in the dungeon, to grant the Raven the power to reincarnate itself and renew its power. If it had been Strength and Patience of the Hill answering, I don't think it would have given those answers - it would be content to allow the last of the Raven's power bleed away.

While the Raven is partly a victim of Hibal's treachery, I think it is also a victim of a sort of divine identity theft. People give their prayers and offerings to gods, but what happens when they are imprecise, or when meaning shifts? I am sure that some offerings are made to "The Raven", but I am also sure that some people are in the habit of making offerings to "The Sustainer or Iraden" or "The god that keeps our city safe." The Strength and Patience of the Hill claims to be the Sustainer of Iraden at the end. As the Raven depended more and more on the "godspoken stone", more and more power would accrue to the Strength and Patience of the Hill, instead of the Raven. No only was his power consumed by the increased pressure from the Tel, but by being ... mis-directed, or siphoned off, by the Strength and Patience of the Hill.
posted by rustcrumb at 10:14 AM on August 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

"Strength and Patience of the Hill" is not a traditional Name to Run Away From Really Fast, but you should still think twice or maybe three times before trying to fuck over a god with that name.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:41 PM on October 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

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