The end of the previous book in the trilogy saw the Hexacharte make a desperate attempt to destroy the ghost of Shuos Jedao…by wiping out his entire fleet. Thousands of soldiers exterminated by their own rulers in the blink of an eye, just to kill the 400-year-old heretic General along with Cheris, the Kel soldier who’s body the General’s ghost is currently inside.
They failed. And they’re only just starting to realize what kind of force they’ve let loose.
The universe in Yoon Ha Lee’s sequel to Ninefox Gambit is just as dazzlingly complex as it was in the first book, but if anything it’s even more dangerous. There’s a lot of collateral damage in the war with the Hafn, but that only gets worse when it involves a technologically advanced government that has no problem with killing entire races to try to track down a living weapon who’s too clever to die.
They had to stop Jedao. They had to stop the Hafn. And, as a bonus, they had to stop Jedao from stopping the Hafn and making a hero of himself.
As I mentioned in my review of Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee has created an intricate world that can be a huge challenge to understand, so when I started Raven Stratagem I thought I might have to struggle to get back into the story. Not to worry though; Lee quickly sets the scene with Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan wondering who this Captain Kel Cheris is to warrant a private transport onto his ship, and within ten pages the notorious Shuos Jedao has strolled his host body onto the deck and commandeered the entire fleet, mostly through sheer force of will.
I was impressed that one chapter was enough to show what a double-edged sword that the Kel-programmed “formation instinct” can be. Even though he’s on the run from his government keepers, Jedao could hijack a fleet of spaceships (or swarm, as it’s known here) with zero casualties, simply because he was a four hundred year old General and thus outranked the hell out of an entire army that was physically incapable of disobeying orders.
And just like that, I fell back into the world of the Hexarchate as if I’d never left. The calendar-based technology, the invading Hafn swarm, the six factions of the government and what each one of them specialized in, all of this information is dropped into the story in a steady stream until the reader is completely immersed in the world.
Not that every part of the story is easy to understand. Not even close.
The entire calendar-based technology is still incomprehensible. I get that it requires having everyone following the same calendar (or else), but I would read passages like, “…if the calendricals tilted in the Hafn’s favor suddenly, composite technology would fail. Every Kel with half a brain knew that compositing was required mainly for reasons of internal discipline between missions, rather than being a useful coordinating tool in battle against heretics…” three or four times to try to understand, and usually I would end up moving the heck on and try to pick up the meaning later.
The political situation is almost as hard to understand. Every faction of the government has it’s own agenda, every member of every faction is out for their own interests, and assassination attempts are a daily annoyance. Everything everyone says has layers and layers of meaning, depending on if they’ve deliberately used a formal or informal term to make a point, or deliver an insult. And of course there’s the fact that the Nirai faction is led by a disembodied consciousness who changes bodies every few decades, and the Shuos leader Mikodez has a younger sister who was altered to be his identical brother so he could have a body double for those days when he had to be in two places at once. And yes, they do have sex with each other.
(I have to make an aside about Mikodez: I loved every one of his chapters. Mikodez is deliberately infuriating, always snide, starts hobbies like knitting and growing a potted onion on his desk just to throw people off, and he’s impossible to figure out. He probably has more sense than anyone else in the book, which is odd considering he’s at least a little insane.)
Society here has evolved to something that can be tricky to visualize. Children can have multiple fathers or mothers, and gender is completely fluid. Jedeo is male but his host is female. Mikodez has an assistant who’s gender I don’t think we ever learn. Colonel Brezan is male but there are several offhand references to him being a “womanform”, which I figured meant that in this society what someone is is more important than the gender that they appear, and trying to keep that in mind every time Brezan speaks or reminisces about his love affairs will give your brain a workout.
The details of this universe are endlessly fascinating: the calendrical effects of scattering numbers or glowing feathers, elegant swarm formation names like Swallow Braves The Thorns or Mountains Never Whisper, the Andan ship with it’s own aviary and garden, the robot servitors who gossip among themselves and enjoy a game of jeng-zai, the Rihal inquisitions that happen in dreams, and the lovely and horrible Hafn technology that makes the Hexarchate system of torture look almost civilized.
There’s no chance to get bored, since there’s always some tantalizing bit of backstory whenever there’s a convenient place to shoehorn it in. And through it all you can never let yourself forget that this is a society where you could do everything right for your entire life and still end up slaughtered along with your entire family because your government is trying to get someone else to react.
“…because as bad as the hexarchate is, as bad as the remembrances are, and the suicide formations, and Kel Command getting crazier with each successive generation – as bad as this all is, I’m not under any illusion that things can’t get worse…”
In short it’s a glorious tangled sprawling storyline, and the hard-to-grasp motivations make it feel like everyone is at least a little insane. Certainly there are a lot of cases where characters throw away soldiers on suicide missions, or torture prisoners at strategic points of the calendar, or force people to watch that torture by projecting the image on the inside of their eyelids, and everyone’s forgotten the reason why they’re doing these things so long ago that they might as well not have a reason at all. But that’s balanced at least a little by those brief, strangely poetic and almost accidental moments when characters sacrifice themselves for reasons that are exactly as impossible to explain.