The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie comes out in February 2019, and it is excellent. It’s been gathering starred reviews from multiple sources ahead of its publication, which is not too surprising for the author of the critically acclaimed Ancillary Justice and other fantastic speculative fiction novels.
What is surprising, however, is that The Raven Tower is being discussed as the “first epic fantasy from SF author Leckie.” I suppose this description from the Publishers Weekly review is technically true, but it is perhaps misleading. It implies that she’s never written fantasy at all before. In fact, The Raven Tower takes place in a fantasy world where Leckie has already spent a lot of time and words.
By the time I read The Raven Tower, I had already read several short stories Leckie set in the same world. In this world, gods are tied to the truth of their utterances. If a god says a thing will happen, and then it doesn’t happen, the god suffers. As you may imagine, this leads gods’ interactions to be extremely carefully phrased, and also contractual. I’m not usually a person who finds contracts to be particularly thrilling—I made the conscious decision not to attend law school—but I was thrilled by the high stakes situations caused by the careful wording.
I’m sure it is possible to be thrilled by this book with no prior experience of the world in which it takes place. However, I was quite glad to have had experience with the world of these gods before reading the novel. You might feel similarly. Luckily, short stories are often freely available online after initial publication, and thus your ability to fill the otherwise Leckie-less nights before February requires only internet access and an appreciation of finely worded contracts. So Happy New Year! Have some free Leckie!
While several of Leckie’s short stories take place in the world of The Raven Tower, there are two that I believe will work most effectively as primers:
This short story is about a young woman who had been destined to serve as a sacrifice to a god, but instead loses her memory and has her personality reshaped by a different god. When it comes to introducing a reader to a complicated world, this story has the extreme benefit of an ant who cannot lie and who whispers information about the world into our amnesiac main character’s ears. Given how much exposition the story includes, it’s impressive that the plot is interesting in its own right. It is also handy preparation for The Raven Tower in another way. The novel is told in a mixture of the first and second person as a god narrates its own side of the story in first person, and also narrates the actions of a human character by addressing that person as “you.” “Beloved of the Sun” offers that same duality of perspectives.
This short story also centers its narrative around a young woman’s interactions with gods, specifically those who are in opposition to each other. In this case, the point-of-view character is leaving town to avoid unwelcome advances from a jerk, when she becomes embroiled in a longstanding disagreement between a god who has fallen on extended hard times and the extremely powerful river god called the Nalendar who rules the waterway by which she leaves town. This story is a good precursor to The Raven Tower partly because it demonstrates how gods operate in this world, but also because it is a good story with engaging human characters.
When I sought out more Leckie after enjoying her novels, I was extremely glad to find this list of her freely available short stories. If you like the stories I have mentioned above, you might just like some other examples of her impressive short story collection.
Some of these stories also take place in the world of The Raven Tower, such as “Marsh Gods” and “The God of Au.” Both hinge on the power struggles inherent in binding agreements and the idea that the powerful can lie dormant for a long time and still rise again. If you’re prepping for Leckie’s upcoming novel, you might want to read those stories next.
And while you are reading some Leckie short stories anyhow, you might want to read “She Commands Me and I Obey,” which gives some backstory for Ancillary Justice. Before Breq was Breq, she acquired beautiful objects from a place very far from Imperial Radch space. “She Commands Me and I Obey” is the story of how that happened.
“Night’s Slow Poison” also takes place in the same universe as the Imperial Radch series, though frankly, it’s a very big universe.
There’s a lot to read! Enjoy the cozy winter nights with some excellent fiction.