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Literature / The Raven Tower

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The first fantasy novel from Ann Leckie.

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's 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.

The Raven Tower provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Badass Boast : Near the ending, when the narrator reveals their identity to the characters:
    "I am the Strength and Patience of the Hill! And I am the god of Vastai, who until now has sustained Iraden! And you, little snake, will not be the first god I have killed. No, nor even the second."
  • The Bard on Board: The half of the book that's set in Vastai is a slightly rearranged version of Hamlet.
  • Best Served Cold: The Strength and Patience of the Hill is slowly, but steadily, working to get revenge on the Raven and the Silent Forest. Thanks to the unwitting aid of the book's human cast, it succeeds by the end.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones:
    • The Strength and Patience of the Hill is a quiet god who, thanks to Time Dissonance, often mulls over thoughts for years or generations and who rarely acts overtly. Then an enemy tribe with divine assistance attacks its people's village and kills its favourite priestess, and it immediately strikes the god dead.
    • The Goddess of the Silent Forest, is, as noted, silent, but when challenged by The Raven (and later, when allied with him) uses some very overt displays of power to show she's not to be trifled with.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Oissen is a god of healing and the inventor of Miracle Food. He also purposely kills slaves through malnutrition For Science! and tricks other gods into letting him drain their power to death. When called out on it, he's completely unapologetic.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: Mawat is dead, the Raven is dead, Ard Vusktia is rebelling and has sent a fleet to declare its independence from Vastai, and the Tel are invading Iraden. The Strength and Patience of the Hill's revenge is complete and Vastai's reckoning has come, and the Strength and Patience of the Hill isn't going to do anything to prevent it.
  • Broken Pedestal: Mawat refuses point-blank to believe that his father fled the city and insists he must have completed his duties to the Raven by killing himself. When he discovers his father is alive but imprisoned, he loses all faith in him as he insists that if he really wanted to die for the Raven to fulfill the Lease he could have found one, even hog-tied in a basement.
  • Cannot Tell a Lie: Gods can only speak the truth. If they say something that isn’t true, they involuntarily warp reality to make it true. This burns their power— and if they speak an untruth that is beyond their power to make true, burning the last of their power will kill them. If they have to talk about things they aren’t completely sure about, they often couch their words with “here is a story I have heard,” allowing some wiggle room for untruths.
  • Creepy Good: The Myriad is a good friend to some of her fellow Ancient Ones and an honest ally to her mortal worshipers... Luckily for them, since she prefers to manifest through vast clouds of mosquitoes.
  • Dead All Along:
    • The Silent Forest almost certainly died before the story began - possibly as much as a hundred years ago - when the Raven devoured her to stay alive.
    • The Raven is an ambiguous example. It's unclear exactly when he died, especially since many of the actions attributed to him were actually being performed by the Strength and Patience of the Hill the entire time. He is definitely dead by the time Eolo goes below the tower, since the Strength and Patience of the Hill says that it is the only god in the tower and Cannot Tell a Lie.
  • Defiant Strip: In Iraden, sitting naked in front of someone's house is a deadly serious accusation that they have committed a major transgression. Mawat does this outside the palace to accuse his uncle of usurping his throne.
  • Divine Right of Kings: An empirically verifiable fact in Iraden. The cornerstone of the state religion is that the Raven's Lease is chosen by the Raven, rules in the Raven's name, and sacrifices himself to the Raven on demand in exchange for the Raven's continued patronage.
  • Enchanted Forest: The Silent Forest — all of it — is inhabited by a goddess who shares its name. She eventually allowed for one road to be built through it and for humans to collect some lumber; anything more, and people walk into the trees and never return.
  • Energy Donation: Oissen coordinates the Divine Conflict against the Raven's forces by forming contracts with his allied gods to allow him to draw on their power. The Strength and Patience of the Hill doesn't trust Oissen, and sure enough, he's been exploiting a loophole in the contracts to drain the gods to death.
  • Exact Words:
    • Because gods impose their will on nature by speaking in some form, this is important. Gods are usually safe speaking in vague terms, like “one day a man returned home,” because that’s something that’s certainly happened before. On the other hand, if they want something changed, gods protect themselves by speaking in extremely specific terms, defining clear limits to what’s changing. “The air will become food” is a very dangerous statement; “This amount of air will become this amount of food” is a lot better.
    • When the god in the Tower is asked if they're the Raven, they reply that they're the god of Vastai, the god responsible for sustaining their nation, and the only god in the tower. This is completely true, but doesn't state outright that they're the Raven. Because they're not. And when Eolo asks outright if it's the Raven, it responds with "it's complicated", followed by a lengthy digression - which Eolo can't read - about how names and words have no absolute objective meaning, allowing it to neatly avoid a more conventionally-accurate "no."
  • Food as Characterization: When Mawat suffers his first major setback in Vastai, he locks himself in his room and leaves his meals outside to spoil. It's an early sign of how he takes his rank and its privileges for granted, and of how his Hair-Trigger Temper often works against him.
    Servant: If he doesn't come out in an hour or two you should just drink the milk, because it will go bad. I don't know why Cook even sent it. We hardly get any fresh milk, and it's wasted on this.
    Eolo: He likes milk. He likes it a little sour. [the servant rolls her eyes]
  • Foregone Conclusion: Half of the book is a recounting of the events that led up to the Strength and Patience of the Hill becoming involved with the war against the Raven.
  • Freudian Excuse: Oskel and Okim were abandoned in infancy as a sacrifice to the Silent Forest, as many twins are in Vastai, and grew up as the subject of superstitious distrust and disdain for being twins. Consequently, they're perfectly willing to sell out Vastai and anyone in it for their own advancement.
  • The Fundamentalist: Mawat truly believes in The Raven and in his role as Lease, beyond merely feeling entitled to the postion as the Lease's Heir. His Berserk Button gets well and truly pressed when anyone, including Eolo, challenges his faith. Due to some unfortunate word choice in the climax, he unwittingly offers himself up as a Human Sacrifice to the Strength and Patience of the Hill.
  • The Ghost: The titular Raven spends most of the book unable to interact directly with events because his new avatar is still in its egg. It later turns out that being denied the sacrifice of Mawat's father has all but killed him, and it's all but stated the Strength and Patience of the Hill finished the job. Answers to the questions to the Raven are instead provided by the Strength and Patience of the Hill.
  • Glorious Death: The Raven's Lease rules Iraden with the direct blessing of the Raven, enjoying power, privilege, and immortality, in exchange for sacrificing themself to the Raven at the end of their tenure. When Mawat's father disappears instead, Mawat is infuriated by the accusation that he might have run away instead of honouring their God.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: While not strictly necessary for their existence, prayers and offerings do provide gods with the power they need to alter the physical world. The Ancient Ones seem much less dependent on these, for reasons unknown even to the Ancient Ones.
  • Good Powers, Bad People: Oissen, a dog-god of Ard Vusktia, is famous for granting Healing and inventing Miracle Food. It's also perfectly willing to condemn whole groups of slaves to a slow death by malnutrition so it can study the effects of different nutrient deficiencies on their bodies.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Mawat and his father are both well-known for having high tempers, exacerbated by the fact that no one has the authority to tell them to pipe down. Mawat repeatedly causes trouble for himself by acting thoughtlessly and when his inheritance is jeopardized by people who think he's not reliable enough for the job yet.
  • Healer God: Oissen is the Physical God of healing and the inventor of Miracle Food, which give him a sizeable following in Ard Vusktia. It's very much a case of Good Powers, Bad People, since he hones his abilities by observing thousands of slaves as they die of preventable conditions.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Although the Strength and Patience of the Hill isn't sure if this is actually true, there is a story about a goose god who created a spear which, once a day, would hit and kill whatever it was thrown at. It was supposed to only work for the original owner. Unfortunately, some wiggle room in the god's wording led to this person's descendant, who had the same name by chance, being able to use it, which the god had not intended. When the god asked for it back, the second owner gave it back by throwing it. And the spear hadn't been used that day. Whoops.
    • The Strength and Patience of the Hill is later knocked out by speaking another God dead.
    • The Raven turns out to have been hoist by that same Petard, as attempting to speak the gods of Ard Vusktia dead was beyond his power — even drained, the Strength and Patience of the Hill and The Myriad are simply too old for the Raven to kill, and the strain of trying drains away The Raven's power.
    • The Raven is hoist by his own petard in another way, too: Because he constantly relied on the power of the Strength and Patience of the Hill to perform the miracles that sustained his country, the Strength and Patience of the Hill is able to accurately say that he is the god of Vastai and the sustainer of Iraden several times at the end of the story, which deceives people into thinking he is the Raven at crucial junctures and leads to Iraden's downfall. Of course, by this time the Raven may no longer be alive to realize this.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: The Strength and Patience of the Hill, a 4 foot high, 12 foot wide slab of stone, and its good friend The Myriad, who typically manifests as a swarm of mosquitoes.
  • Human Sacrifice: Human sacrifices, especially those offered willingly, are the most potent way to give a god power. The Lease is bound to sacrifice himself whenever the Raven's physical body dies in exchange for ruling Vastai.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Eolo is this to Mawat, as noted by several characters in the story and even by Mawat himself. Mawat is still too willful to take his advice on several occasions, especially when enraged.
  • Interclass Friendship: Eolo and Mawat are trusted friends despite Mawat being heir to the country's throne and Eolo being a runaway Farm Boy turned soldier; upon returning to the capital, several people remark on the fact that Eolo can reason with Mawat when no one else can. Implied to overlap with Fire-Forged Friends, since they were active in the military together.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Mawat's uncle is dismissive and condescending to his nephew, but his criticism is well based in fact. Mawat's behavior and tantrums have done little to inspire confidence in his abilities as a leader. His military campaigning shows he's by no means hopeless, but he lacks the skills and perspective to handle the more mundane problems of governance and everyone realizes it except for him.
  • Karmic Death:
    • The first time Airu leads his soldiers in a grand attack, he disobeys Mawat's orders in doing so, nearly sabotages the entire mission, and is almost executed for insubordination. The lesson doesn't stick: he leads his men in another grand attack, chortling all the while about how lucky he is that Mawat isn't there to rein him in, and gets butchered in the resulting ambush.
    • Mawat has unquestioning faith in the Raven's power and in his own power as the heir to the Raven's Lease, and repeatedly brushes off Eolo when he calls those beliefs into question. He ignores Eolo's warning that he no longer has the Raven's protection and dares an enemy god to kill him; the god does just that.
    • After scheming to take control of Iraden and then Vastai and then backstabbing The Silent Forest, the Raven is killed by treachery by his own Lease's family and a pair of foreign gods, one of whom he had tried to kill prior and (unwittingly) enslaved.
  • Kill the God:
    • One god can speak another's death, but this is immensely draining, even if the target is already weakened. The Strength and Patience of the Hill gets knocked out for two years when it does so, and another god is surprised that it survived at all. The Raven does so to every god in Ard Vusktia in the backstory, though only after they're drained trying to repel his attacks and even so it leaves him all but powerless.
    • Mortals can't do much to harm a god directly, but might be able to exploit loopholes in the god's own words to deadly effect. The ploy to kill the Raven relies on forcing it to drain itself upholding its promises to the city while denying it the power of its Human Sacrifice.
  • Lying by Omission: Gods often deceive in this way because they Cannot Tell a Lie, such as by using "I have heard" to qualify statements that aren't true. Crucially, when the god in the Raven Tower of Vastai is asked if it's the Raven, it proclaims that it's the god of Vastai, the god responsible for sustaining the nation, and the only god in the Tower. It's actually the god the Raven had secretly dumped his duties on. The Raven is dead.
  • Miracle Food: One god's most famous accomplishment is discovering how to produce this, which it uses to feed a city. It's more difficult than it looks, requiring precise understanding of the chemical processes involved, and more difficult still to produce food that won't cause long-term malnutrition.
  • Mundane Utility: Many small gods make a living facilitating household tasks, such as keeping water clean, preventing small fires from getting out of hand, and generally making an area nicer to live in. In Vastai all of these duties are handled by the Raven. Or, in reality, by the Strength and Patience of the Hill, who the Raven enslaved; as soon as it's freed, the city is ravaged by a cholera outbreak and multiple fires, as no one remembers how to handle these dangers without godly assistance.
  • Naked People Are Funny: Inverted in Iraden. If someone is angry enough at you to sit naked at your doorstep in public, it's a deadly serious accusation and a mark of terrible shame against you. Mawat does this as a public accusation against his uncle.
  • Neurodiversity Is Supernatural: Implied. At one point the Strength and Patience of the Hill describes the characteristics of a character who is plainly intended to be neurodivergent, then notes that this is the "sort of person" who would become a priestess in the north.
  • No Ontological Inertia: A god's death nullifies any artifact or contract that relies on its power, although there are rumours that Ancient Ones can lay Curses that persist long after their deaths.
  • Odd Job Gods: Some gods choose to specialize in this way, either to hone their expertise in one field or to build a sort of brand recognition. One god in Ard Vusktia has cornered the market on prayers and miracles related to flint-knapping and is expanding into metallurgy to stay contemporary.
  • Oh, Crap! : Eolo when he realizes who has been answering the questions instead of the Raven:
    “Don’t! This isn’t the Raven! It’s the stone!”
  • The Old Gods: The remains of ancient gods who existed long before humans are mentioned repeatedly. Nothing substantial is known about them, but they were immensely powerful and many impossible things are attributed to them, such as curses that persist despite their apparent death. Unfortunately for the Raven, The Strength and Patience of the Hill and the Myriad are among their number.
  • The Older Immortal: The Strength and Patience of the Hill is old enough to remember the evolution and extinction of the Trilobites, and is implied to have lived through a previous era of sentient life on the planet that worshiped and animated an entire generation of gods, and their ensuing extinction. The Myriad may be even older than the Strength and Patience, though her time on the planet (having crashed into it as a meteor) is counted in 'mere' tens of millennia as opposed to millions of years.
  • Patron God: On one end of the scale, minor deities attach themselves to individual people, offering minor miracles in exchange for occasional prayer. On the other, the Raven has a Magically-Binding Contract with the entire country of Iraden, detailing the services — from a situationally immortal ruler to water purification, some of them outsourced to lesser gods -guaranteed in exchange for formal, nationwide worship and sacrifice.
  • Perception Filter: One god-spoken object prevents people from noticing the person who holds it. Discussed when a character realizes that this is both more effective (since it affects all the senses) and more efficient (since it's just clouding mortal minds rather than precisely manipulating light) than true Invisibility.
  • Physical Religion: The world has an abundance of gods, great and small, who can grant prayers and need worship, so religious observance usually has an element of negotiation to it. The priestess who first began worshiping the Strength and Patience of the Hill had been taught to identify natural features that seemed like they could be gods. The smallest gods provide minor miracles to individuals in exchange for worship, while the greatest ones have formal contracts with entire nations and might even outsource some duties to lesser gods.
  • Power Incontinence: When a god speaks, whatever they say either is true or becomes true — or fails to become true, wounding or killing the god. They have to choose their words quite carefully when discussing things they don't know about, so as not to commit inadvertent suicide by trying to change, say, the fundamental nature of stars.
  • Power-Strain Blackout: When The Strength and Patience of the Hill speaks another god dead the ensuing strain leaves him unconscious for two years and forces The Myriad to take over his duties in his absence.
  • Purpose-Driven Immortality: The Raven grants this to the Raven's Lease during their term; in fact, anyone who tries to kill the Lease is struck dead on the spot. The only way the Lease can die is to sacrifice themself to the Raven at the end of their term. When Mawat's father is found dead, it's a sign that the Raven's power is broken.
  • Reality Warper: Gods have the power to alter the world by speaking. If something they say isn't true, their power will automatically try to alter the world to make it true - whether they want it to or not. The easiest way to kill a god is to trick it into making an impossible statement, or by changing things so statements a god has previously made will contradict one another.
  • Requisite Royal Regalia: The throne in the Raven Tower is reserved for the Raven's Lease by the god itself; anyone else who sits in it drops dead.
  • Second-Person Narration: Much of the book consists of the Strength and Patience of the Hill narrating Eolo's story to Eolo himself, and so is written in the second person.
  • Smug Snake: The Xulahn god is a literal example.
  • Stronger with Age: Provided they do not expend their power overmuch, merely existing adds power to a god, and the slow accumulation of casual worship over the cause of centuries builds up. Both The Strength and Patience of the Hill and The Myriad are ancient, and the Goddess of the Silent Forest is similarly powerful by not having had to exert themselves much. More to the point, whether they are powerful or not no truly ancient gods seem to be more 'in tune' with reality and are harder to permanently kill with another god's will — the Raven drains himself dead trying to proclaim The Strength and Patience of the Hill and The Myriad dead, and neither of them are capable of large-scale miracles on his level.
  • Super-Empowering: Gods can perform miracles on another god's behalf, or lend their power to another god. Like every other thing gods do, the how of it must be worded carefully or the other god may drain too much power and kill them. Both the gods of Ard Vuskia and the Raven abused this to kill their supporters, and later The Strength and Patience of the Hill is taken as a war trophy by the Raven, who is unaware it is a god and not simply some kind of god-made object, and forced to offer its power to run Vastai. Eolo and Mawat unwittingly free it during the last part of the book.
  • Time Abyss:
    • The Strength and Patience of the Hill remembers events from the Cambrian periodnote  and likes to watch the revolution of the solar system around the galactic core. It took dedicated effort from several generations of nomads just to get it to notice humans as anything more noteworthy than peculiar animals.
    • The Myriad may be even older, having started out as a comet orbiting the solar system.
  • Time Dissonance: Zig-zagged with the Ancient Ones. The Myriad spends enough time around humans to care about their activities, whereas the Strength and Patience of the Hill generally prefers to wait for any mortal-made problem to pass on its own, whether it takes years or millennia.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Since misusing a god-made object is one of the only reliable ways to harm a god, the general reaction to finding one is to wonder how the god who made it is still alive.
  • Trans Tribulations: The protagonist Eolo is a young trans man in a fantasy nation that doesn't legally acknowledge his identity, so he left home and only discusses the topic with a few trusted people. He has mixed feelings about a proposition of a magical sex change and rebuffs the offerer for being intrusive.
  • True Companions: The Strength and Patience of the Hill and The Myriad, having spent millennia getting to know each other, are the only two gods in the book who seem to truly trust each other. Despite the Strength and Patience of the Hill's disaffected tone, it makes clear it sees The Myriad as its friend, and The Myriad never shows anything but signs of reciprocating that friendship.
  • Voice of the Legion: Implied. When The Strength and Patience of the Hill forces itself to speak out loud, despite being a huge stone with no mouth, Eolo is absolutely terrified by the sound of it.
  • Wheel of Pain: Zig-Zagged:
    • The Strength and Patience of the Hill strikes a deal with Oissen to aid in the creation of Miracle Food by promising to "grant the petition of whoever is causing me to be turned." Oissen disguises The Strength and Patience of the Hill as a god-made object (to keep them from drawing prayers that would otherwise go to Oissen) and sets a group of slaves to work at a wheel that turns The Strength and Patience of the Hill like a millstone.
    • The Strength and Patience of the Hill is later captured by the Raven and affixed to a similar hydro-powered wheel in the caverns beneath the Tower. There are no slaves operating the wheel, but The Strength and Patience of the Hill is themselves enslaved and forced to grant their powers to the Raven as long as the wheel turns.
  • White Is Pure: The Raven's Lease rules with the direct blessing and protection of the nation's Patron God. The job comes with a Dirt Forcefield as a side perk, keeping their formal robes of office miraculously white.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: The Vastai side of the plot is one to Hamlet:
    • Mawat = Hamlet, the prince whose throne was taken.
    • Eolo = Horatio, his more sensible best friend and companion.
    • Mawat's father = Hamlet's Father.
    • Hibal = Claudius, Mawat's evil usurping uncle.
    • Lord Radihaw = Polonius, the adviser who Mawat (supposedly) murders pointlessly midway through.
    • Tikaz = Ophilia, though she avoids being bethrothed to Mawat and stays sane, feigning insanity briefly after her father's death instead.
    • Oskel and Okim = Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, traitorous best friends of Mawat brought back to spy on and undermine him by his evil uncle.
  • The Wrongful Heir to the Throne: Mawat's temper was one of the factors that led to Hibal being appointed Raven's Lease instead of him, in hopes that a few more years or decades as Heir would let him grow into the role.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: The Raven's Lease is the highest authority in the city, but is required to commit ritual suicide when the Raven's current host body dies. The narration dryly notes that ambitious people tend to set their sights on positions with slightly less power but a longer tenure.