The Raven Tower is really two stories in one – both of which are told from the perspective of a local god, which places one of the stories in an interesting second-person voice. Eolo, the servant/attendant of the heir to the throne of Iraden, comes to the capital city and gets wrapped up in a scheme reminiscent of Hamlet: the brother of the Raven’s Lease (what they call the ruler of Iraden) has usurped the position of Raven’s Lease and somehow done away with the original Raven’s Lease, cutting his nephew Mawat out of the succession.
The second story in The Raven Tower is even more interesting – the rise of a god named The Strength and Patience of the Hill. This story shows how gods and magic work in this world. The way gods are born is unclear, but what is clear is that humans can find them. As more humans start to worship a god and give it offerings, it gains power. Another feature of gods, vital to the plot: a god cannot lie – its very words are its actions, and anything it says will draw on the power of the god to make the statement true. I very much enjoy this aspect of the story, and the way Leckie sets up her gods to deal with it. They’re very circumspect in their pronouncements, and cagey with their words. Emotion does get the best of them, and that’s when they are most vulnerable. The Raven supposedly enforces some aspects of the Raven’s Lease – the Lease dies when the Raven’s physical form does, and as a sacrifice, renews the power of the Raven in its successor physical form as a younger Raven. The fact that Mawat’s uncle can claim to be the Raven’s Lease without being struck dead is considered by many of the characters a sign that the Raven blesses this succession, but there is more to that story.
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Eolo’s tale of usurpation and The Strength and Patience of the Hill’s (TSPH) rise are connected, of course. An indeterminate length of time ago, TSPH agreed to take part in a coalition of gods defending the city of Ard Vusktia from the titular Raven. In the course of that war, the Raven declared all the gods opposing him dead. The Raven of Iraden now rules his country and Ard Vusktia. TSPH is relegated to the bowels of the Raven Tower, grinding away providing much of the actual magic that fuels and sustains Iraden, answering prayers directed more to the Raven than himself. The Raven’s attempt to kill off all the opposing gods catches up to him, and that is how, with the support of skulking Xulahns (foreigners from the south with some sort of snake god with them,) the uncle was able to usurp Mawat’s succession to the throne. The Raven himself is dead, with only the imprisonment of TSPH keeping the kingdom going.
I greatly enjoyed The Raven Tower, even more than I’d liked Leckie’s Provenance, and I’d highly recommend it as a good read for anyone interested in fantasy that avoids well-worn tropes. The one thing I would have liked to see more of is more about Eolo’s crossdressing and its implications for her/them?