Book Review: The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

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Rating:  ★★★

Friends!  I’m sorry I haven’t been posting this week.  I’ve been dealing with a sick child with a high fever.  I’m also having a terrible week as far as reading goes- not only am I not getting much of it done, I’m not enjoying what I’m reading.  It could be my mood or it could be that the books are really just not good.

I’m torn on which category The Raven Tower falls into.  I’ll go ahead and qualify this review right up front by letting you know that I did not read all of this book.  I read all of it up until about the 30% mark, and then I was so bored I flat out skipped all the parts told by The Strength and Patience of the Hill.  Maybe I didn’t give it a fair shake, but at the same time, if I’m that bored 30% in, it’s probably not a good sign.  It’s rare that I actively DNF a book.  So I’m giving it three stars and splitting my rating down the middle.    My review is much rantier than the typical three star book warrants.

Do you want to hear the story of a billion year old rock god that does nothing but sit on a hill and watch the world go by?

Well I sure didn’t.

There are two ways to get me to love a book.

1. Tell me a good story. Twists and turns, betrayals and deceptions, horror after horror. Tell me a good story. This is why I picked the book up. This is what I wanted.

2. If you aren’t going to give me a good story, you had better entertain me with some solid characters and funny banter.

If you can give me both- even better. I do on occasion like books with fantastical world building, or books that make me think, or books with a sweep me away romance, but if I picked the book up in the first place, it’s because I wanted one of the above.

The Raven Tower promises on the story and fails to deliver, and the characters were some of the worst I’ve read this year. No personality. No feeling between them. No connection to them. I mean- on the one hand they are flawed and feel human enough.. but just… ugh. Not even the villain here was evil enough to hate. At least make me hate that guy- make me eager for his demise, make me cheer him on to his death. It didn’t happen.

The interesting part of this book is the part that follows Mawat and Eolo. And there just wasn’t enough story there to support the book. I was skipping fifty page chunks to get past the rock god observing the way of humans and gods. Then I’d read a couple short chapters of the part I enjoyed and have to skip another fifty pages.

The ending felt rushed and abrupt. It all comes to this ecxiting climax in the Raven Tower and then it just ends. There’s no real conclusion. It doesn’t feel complete. It doesn’t even feel like an ambiguous open ending like those of VanderMeer and Erdrich. It’s like paying money to see a concert from your favorite band, impatiently watching a bunch of opening bands you’ve never heard of before, seeing your band come on stage, having them perform their most popular song ever, and walk off stage. Lights out. Go home. Nothing to see here folks. And you’re just sitting there stunned. Like, I paid money to see this?! And then you sit there for 20 minutes thinking it must be some sort of cruel joke. Until reality sets in and you leave with nothing but a bitter taste in your mouth.

Now- maybe I didn’t get it, because as I said, I skipped a lot. But I don’t feel like I didn’t get it. I don’t feel like I missed anything. Hell I wasn’t even confused. I felt more confusion over my beloved Terra Ignota series and I read them in their entirety.

I guess I should comment on the POV, because it seems to be a sticking point for some. The chapters of world history are told in first person and the interesting chapters are told in second person. This doesn’t actually bother me. I’m totally fine with second person and actually enjoy it when it’s done right. I don’t think Leckie used it to her full advantage though. I would have preferred that Eolo had no name. I would have preferred that his gender and sex were never referred to. I think it would have been a really interesting way to make the whole book significantly more personal. If you want the reader to be the protagonist- let them really be the protagonist. It’s not as if Eolo has all that much personality, just make them a blank slate. Let the reader impress their own identity entirely upon the protagonist. I just felt that second person POV was wasted here.

I guess what’s most disappointing about it, is that I know Leckie is capable of better. I know she’s capable of fantastical world building with complex societal issues. I know she’s capable of building sprawling galaxies full of vibrant life and colors. The Raven Tower feels incredibly small and narrow in its views. One town. One Tower. One guesthouse. A handful of characters. Vague mentions of competing nearby people. One character from another society who’s purpose in the story is never really explained and whose culture is never really explored.

Again- I didn’t read many of the parts told by the god. So maybe my issues are unfounded and I’m just an impatient ignoramus.. but honestly I doubt it. I have an idea of what those passages were about and I still don’t care enough to go read them.

So take this review with a heavy grain of salt. I can admit when I’m being a jerk. But honestly I’m sending this back to the library today and I’ll be hesitant to pick up anything else set in this world in the future.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

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Rating:  ★★★

It has been said, that Tracker has a nose. Other people want Tracker to use that nose to track down missing things, husbands mostly. But then someone asks him to find a boy, but no one will give him a straight answer about why the boy is so important. What he’s wanted for and who wants him. So he gets involved because he’s curious about the truth of things.

I was so excited for this book when I heard about it, that I immediately put it on hold at my library (like 4 months prior to release).  I was first in line.  I picked it up on release day and dove right in, putting aside two other books to commit to this one.  I don’t want to say I’m disappointed- all of the elements I was excited for were there.  African mythology and folklore came in spades.  Varied settings and scenery.  Something new and something fresh.  Black Leopard, Red Wolf has all of those things.

But I don’t know if the story and conclusion I was given, was good enough to outweigh the time and effort I put into reading this to make it feel worth it.  Surely there aren’t enough books like this in the market right now, but I can’t help but think I could have waded through another two or three books with similar elements in the time it took me to read this one.

This is told a lot like a confession. Tracker frequently address the reader as Inquisitor, and it does a really great job of setting up the tone and gives the reader the sense that the book is being told to them out loud. However, I also felt like it made it put far too much emotional distance between the reader and the story itself, and in my opinion it became a detriment to the kind of story being told.

This seems like a good place to mark content warnings, so you might understand what I mean: brutal violence, violence against children, violence against women, slavery, rape, genital mutilation, and general mutilation. This is one of the most violent novels I have read in a long time. When I read Jemisin’s The Fifth Season she had exactly two scenes that I found really disturbing, both involving violence against children.  This book has significantly more and it hardly fazed me. I’m blaming the way the story is told, but I also think it has a lot to do with the way it desensitizes you (maybe that’s the point?).

When you spend 600 pages with a character- you should feel more about them than I did in the end. That’s not to say Tracker isn’t a great character. He is a great character. There were lots of great characters: the Leopard, Sadogo, and most of all Mossi. Someone could write a fascinating thesis on the psychology of Tracker, honestly. And I am really, truly frustrated that I don’t feel more about them than I think I should have. Generally if an author has great characters with great banter (as these often did) that feel human, I’m pretty sold. I don’t really care what they do, and the same was true of this book. I didn’t really care about the boy or what happened to him. In my mind he was sort of an afterthought. (Maybe that’s the problem?) And yet I got to the end and just didn’t feel the impact. I wanted to be ugly crying.  I wanted to feel Tracker’s grief.  Instead I felt a tinge of sadness and moved on.

Aside from that the book was excessively long. Like really fucking long. Like 620 pages long that felt like 1200 pages. On top of length alone it’s really dense. 40 pages chapters are not uncommon. <— This makes me insane. I’d rather you handed me a book with a hundred chapters and 1200 pages than feel like I have to sit and read 40 pages in one go. I often read on my break at work. 15 minutes is not enough time to read one chapter, so I inevitably had to put it down in the middle of something. Not even two breaks was enough to finish one chapter. Sometimes I’d turn a page and the whole page would be one long wall of text that would immediately make my heart sink. So structure was a huge issue for me.  Authors- please stop doing this to your readers.  It’s adding needless frustration.

And aside from length and density, there’s the novel itself which is pretty complex. There’s lots of characters coming and going. It isn’t always made clear who they are and what their purpose is. There are lots of little details to remember. And as if that wasn’t enough there’s tons of circular or riddle-like dialogue that makes the reader feel as if they’ve missed the context.

Other stuff I enjoyed: the scenery and the mythology. I found myself wishing I knew more about African mythology so I could connect to the text in some other way. I think readers with some knowledge of it will go crazy over this book. Every page probably holds some easter egg of information for them. The scenery was set very well (although I think could have been pared back a bit). We see grasslands and jungles, swamps, small villages, big cities. There’s a place called the Darklands which I loved and wished I’d seen more of.

Another thing I loved was the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters. (In fact I think it was one of my favorite things.) Tracker’s examination of his own sexuality/masculinity was an ongoing theme in the book that I found super interesting. [Minor Spoiler]: And then there’s his relationship with Mossi, which has truly become one of my favorite relationships portrayed in literature.  Mossi is the peanut butter to Tracker’s jelly.  When he is introduced he is so badly needed to break up the darkness of this book.  Tracker in general is just in desperate need of a person who cares about him, and Mossi is that guy.

Just figured I’d mention this too: the hardcover edition of this book is super pretty. The paper is a little glossy. The cover is gorgeous. There are multiple maps to look at and appreciate.

In the end, I’m glad I read it, but I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone, and I’m hesitant to even commit to the next book. I suspect that this is a story rehashed multiple times by all the characters involved so we can see how their perceptions change things.  I don’t think the plot of this book is strong enough to support being rehashed multiple times and I don’t think the next character’s POV (it looks like it will be Sogolon) is interesting enough to make me want to read it.  It’s a neat concept- but would work better as one book that was maybe 600 pages long.  Certainly not an 1800+ page trilogy.  That said I do want to know what happens, so I’ll probably look up a summary or a spoilery review or two to piece it together.