The Raven Tower, multiple-award-winning author Ann Leckie’s fifth novel and first foray into fantasy, is, like her much-decorated Imperial Radch, focused on questions of political power and language and the intersections between them. It’s set in a world populated by a multitude of gods who can only speak the truth, which is both the source of their power and their weakness: if a god speaks something which is not true, and they are not powerful enough to make it true magically, they die, their power siphoned away by the impossible effort of reshaping the universe.
The narrator of the novel is one such god, a rock called the Strength and Patience of the Hill, telling the story of its early interactions with humans and its involvement in a trade war between the cities of Ard Vusktia and Vastai, which face each other across a strategically important strait. Interleaved with this narrative is a story set some centuries after that war, also told by the Strength and Patience of the Hill, in which the Lease’s Heir Mawat is summoned home to Vastai, expecting to find his father the Lease dead or about to be so, only to discover that his uncle Hibal has usurped the position of Lease and his father is nowhere to be found. This is particularly worrisome for all involved given that the Lease of Vastai is a sacrificial position: the incumbent gains power in exchange for his eventual sacrifice to the Raven, the god who now protects Vastai, Ard Vusktia and the country of Iraden. With the Lease potentially unpaid, will the Raven forsake Iraden, leaving it to the mercy of the warring peoples on its borders? The main player in this strand of the narrative is not Mawat but Eolo, his aide, a prudent, intelligent, loyal man who’s determined to find out what’s happened to Mawat’s father and what kind of game Hibal is playing.
That the whole thing is narrated by a god – who, remember, cannot lie – means that this is a story in which language and its role in shaping reality is foregrounded. Our narrator regularly uses circumlocutions like “may or may not”, “here is a story I have heard”, “this is what I think happened” to avoid speaking dangerous untruths – a constant reminder that what we are reading is necessarily mediated through a single perspective; our only access to Vastai and Ard Vusktia is through the words of the Strength and Patience of the Hill; it is effectively creating that world through language. The way in which even the truth-value of language is malleable is aptly illustrated in a piece of propaganda related by the Strength and Patience of the Hill, a tale told by the Raven concerning events that our narrator has already told us about. The Raven’s tale is exaggerated and skewed to place him in a favourable light, but in its essentials it’s basically true; it has to be, as being told by a god. Truth as expressed in language is a complex and malleable thing; words come with contexts that inflect statements even when they’re not explicitly spoken.
The Raven Tower continues Leckie’s interest in non-standard pronoun usage as a way to enact power through language. The Imperial Radch of her science fiction trilogy is genderless, which Leckie represents by using female pronouns for all her characters; this genderlessness is enforced on conquered cultures that do recognise more than one gender, a particularly insidious form of colonialism that’s marked by language alone. Which is to say that semantics matter, especially when it comes to identity-based social constructs like gender. In The Raven Tower, the Strength and Patience of the Hill addresses the novel’s lead Eolo as “you”, guessing at his thoughts and emotions from his reactions. Not only does this serve to further reinforce the subjectivity of the god’s narrative, it also (as Liz Bourke points out at Tor.com) draws attention away from the I of the novel, and thus from questions like “how does this god know so much about Vastai?” and “what are its motivations?” until it’s much too late for the characters to do anything about it. The Strength and Patience of the Hill, true to its name, works in secret from both characters and readers.
The semantics of gender are important here too: Eolo is transgender, a fact that most of the people who know about it accept, so it’s not really a Thing as it might be in another, less thoughtful fantasy novel. However, there’s an interesting moment towards the end of the novel which I think ties into the novel’s emphasis on language and power: an enraged Mawat is about to storm into the House of the Silent, a place reserved for the women who serve the god of the silent forest that lies in the south of Iraden. Eolo point-blank refuses to enter (“Only women can go in there. I’m not a woman.”), to the confusion and rage of Mawat: “I never said you were…I’m going in there.” The cisgender Mawat has presumably never run the risk of being misgendered, a fact which gives him the confidence to break gender-based social taboos; whereas, for Eolo, semantics and social constructs are much more important to his ability to be read as male. Here again we see language constructing reality, and, more specifically, the importance of semantics in constructing gender.
None of these ponderings on truth, semantics and the role of language in constructing power are exactly new: there are plenty of stories about places where fiction is banned, or lies are illegal; about unreliable narrators and the malleability of reality. The world Leckie’s built is quite an interesting departure from the standard Fantasyland thanks mainly to the Strength and Patience of the Hill’s scientific enquiry into the way its power works, but overall I’d say The Raven Tower is a solid, thoughtful book rather than a great one. There’s plenty here to think about, but nothing to set the world on fire.