Horatio, Eolo, Strength and Patience: Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower

This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid on 1st March 2019. If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.

My favorite Shakespearean character is Horatio. Calm, stoic, loyal and with a subtly different viewpoint to everyone else, Horatio’s season in Elsinore is uniquely horrific in a play crammed full of personal nightmares. He has to stand by his best friend as he kills, as he apparently goes mad, as he stages political unrest and participates in the single biggest murderfest in English literature that doesn’t involve The Rains of Castamere.

Worst gap year EVER. 

Horatio and Eolo, from The Raven Tower, would have a lot to talk about I think. The first epic fantasy from multiple award winning science fiction author Ann Leckie, The Raven Tower is a book that performs numerous close up magic tricks. They’re all hidden in plain sight and are even more impressive for that. Especially as the entire novel is narrated, or rather, delivered, to us in second person by a god. Strength and Patience is far from the only god in its world, but it’s one uniquely positioned to help us, and Eolo, understand that world. Embodied in a rock, Strength has nothing but time and as a result has made some very interesting discoveries about language..Leckie is one of the finest technical writers working today and that compliment isn’t intended to say her work is dry at all. It’s writing that embraces the joyously untidy complexities of linguistic meaning and consequence and uses both to drive the story. The Gods of this world are immeasurably powerful but even they can’t quite control language and Strength’s caution is born at least in part from that. The novel’s best early scenes include descriptions of what happened to linguistically reckless gods and the calm, gently wry way in which Strength explains the situation makes it both more alien and more understandable. The impression you’re left with is one of a new world; still forming, unsure of itself. The stories of its life to date battling for control of a larger narrative whose magma is still cooling and, in the port of Vastai, starting to crack.

Vastai, and Iraden, the kingdom around it, are protected by the Raven. The Raven’s will is carried out by the Raven’s Lease, a human monarch of sorts chosen by the Raven itself. The Raven is continually reborn, the Lease is a family position dedicated to serving it in life and, through blood sacrifice, death.  Mawat, the next Lease, returns home to bury his father, accompanied by trusted aide Eolo. But what he finds makes no sense; his father has vanished, his uncle is the Lease and the city is hunched over with tension. Intent on finding the truth, Mawat begins playing a long, erratic game of courtly manners and dispatches Eolo to investigate where he can’t be seen to be.

So this is a mystery, wrapped inside a fantasy novel, wrapped in turn inside a discussion of linguistics. it’s heady stuff and all of it delivered with Leckie’s customary subtlety, wit and compassion. This is a complex, untidy world in which no one is quite a villain even though they may oppose the two leads and it has a refreshingly down to Earth quality that makes Vastai feel like a city not a film set. Plus, the way the novel explores Eolo’s position as a trans man really draws strong comparisons with Horatio. As Liz Bourke at Tor has pointed out, both have several reasons to stand apart from the crowd and both, as shown here, use that perspective for the greater good. Leckie also raises the fascinating question of whether Mawat’s orders are meant as a compliment or a slight and leaves you to decide. After all, language is a tricky thing. Just ask a God.

The Raven Tower is complex, unique and often playful and fun in a cheerily dark way. It’s an extraordinary first novel in the field for Leckie and yet another example of why she’s one of the best genre fiction writers working today. It’s available now.