Monday, July 22, 2019

Review: Raven Strategem by Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Strategem by Yoon Ha Lee
Published: Solaris (2017)
Series: Book 2 of the Machineries of Empire
Awards Nominated: Hugo and Locus SF Awards

The Book:

“Captain Kel Cheris is possessed by a long-dead traitor general. Together they must face the rivalries of the hexarchate and a potentially devastating invasion. When the hexarchate's gifted young captain Kel Cheris summoned the ghost of the long-dead General Shuos Jedao to help her put down a rebellion, she didn't reckon on his breaking free of centuries of imprisonment--and possessing her.

Even worse, the enemy Hafn are invading, and Jedao takes over General Kel Khiruev's fleet, which was tasked with stopping them. Only one of Khiruev's subordinates, Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan, seems to be able to resist the influence of the brilliant but psychotic Jedao. Jedao claims to be interested in defending the hexarchate, but can Khiruev or Brezan trust him? For that matter, will the hexarchate's masters wipe out the entire fleet to destroy the rogue general?”

I started reading this series due to it being a Hugo finalist, but I’ve continued reading them because they’re just so interestingly weird.  I’ve reviewed the first book here. The final novel in the trilogy, Revenant Gun,  is currently up for the Hugo again, so we’ll see how the series fares this year!

My Thoughts:

Raven Stratagem picks up not too long after the conclusion of Ninefox Gambit, and the reader needs to remember the details of the previous novel.  I’d recommend reading this series in order, and preferably not with long gaps in between. Sadly, I did not take this advice. I spent the first part of the book reminding myself of the universe, and also wondering if I had totally misread part of the ending of Ninefox Gambit.  It turns out that I didn’t, and everything does make sense in the end. It was just that several characters keep their cards very close to the chest, and sometimes secrets the reader doesn’t know can seem like narrative discontinuity or inconsistent characterization. After the reveals throughout Raven Stratagem, my faith in Lee’s storytelling has been strengthened for the final novel of the trilogy.

Raven Stratagem has more focus on the characters than the first novel, but I would still say that characterization is not its strong point.  We don’t have the perspective of Cheris/Jedao this time, so there isn’t much development there. Of the other characters, I most enjoyed reading about General Kel Khiruev, a woman who is put in an incredibly difficult position.  Formation instinct requires her to obey Jedao, but she also has personal moral principles that she wants to follow. The soldier who is immune to formation instinct, Brezan, has a different problem--he is free to oppose Jedao, but he can only do so alone.  Of all the characters, I was least interested in reading about the political machinations of the faction leaders. Even Mikodez, our perspective character, is kind of flat and inhuman. I’m wondering if this is intentional, as a way to represent how the Hexarchate crushes the humanity out of those who manage to rise up in its ranks.

I was most impressed by the world-building in Ninefox Gambit, and that continues to be a strong point in Raven Stratagem.  The broad strokes of the Hexarchate were laid out in the first book, and in this one we start to fill in more details.  I had a hard time keeping all the factions straight in the first book, but here we get to see more interaction with the members of each.  Exploring the Kel faction formation instinct, which enforces the soldier’s obedience to authority, is also a major focus of the novel. I feel like I also got a clearer picture this time of the sheer horror of the Hexarchate.  Their government is incredibly dehumanizing and oppressive, and it is only becoming more so as time goes on. It is very easy to sympathize with a heretic’s desire to destroy it. Like Ninefox Gambit, this novel does tell a complete story, but it is still clearly part of a larger arc that I expect to conclude with Revenant Gun.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Raven Stratagem is the second book of the creatively weird Machineries of Empire series, where adherence to calendar systems define the society and available technology. I enjoyed getting more details about the Hexarchate and its people, and I liked that there was a little more focus on characterization than in the first novel. On the other hand, there was also a plotline focusing on politics between villainish aristocrats, which didn’t really catch my interest.  Overall, I did enjoy the novel, and I’ll definitely be reading the conclusion of the series, Revenant Gun!

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