27 June 2018

Hugos 2018: Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Trade paperback, 355 pages
Published 2017

Acquired April 2018
Read June 2018
Machineries of Empire, Book Two: Raven Stratagem
by Yoon Ha Lee

I completely bounced off Ninefox Gambit, the book to which this is a sequel, and picked it up with a feeling of undertaking a dreaded duty when it was revealed as a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards. Well, I don't know if it was me or the book, but as I read it, I found myself enjoying it more and more, and then once a nice twist came along around the two-thirds mark, I was definitely on board. Raven Stratagem picks up only loosely from the end of Ninefox Gambit: basically the dead genocidal general Shuos Jedao has taken over the body of naval captain Kel Charis, and outside of "them," no other characters recur between the two books. (As far as I noticed anyway; my memories of Ninefox are a little vague.) Jedao is never a viewpoint character; the focal characters of Raven are the general of the fleet Jedao takes over, a personnel officer from that fleet who defies his takeover, and the leader of the Shuos faction.

Whereas I felt Ninefox focused on space combat that might as well be magic, Raven focuses much more on character and politics. I especially really liked Kel Brezan, the personnel officer. The Kel, the military faction of the hexarchate, are all ingrained with "formation instinct," which causes them to obey any order given. But Brezan is a "crashhawk," a Kel whose formation instinct is very weak. So on the one hand, he can defy the unlawful orders of Jedao, but on the other hand, in doing so, he reveals himself as a failure of a Kel. Dutiful and loyal, but self-deprecating for not being dutiful and loyal enough: that's my kind of character. The flashbacks peppered throughout to the various characters' training are especially interesting, as they reveal both personality and the rules and customs of the six factions of the hexarchate.

There are two things I wish for more of: I like the idea that belief in an exotic math system allows you to use it to devastating effect (shades of Christopher H. Bidmead's block transfer computation there), but why belief in a math system is dependent on using a particular calendar remains frustratingly obscure. Though maybe spelling it out would be even less convincing! And also once the twist comes two-thirds of the way in, things proceed a little too perfunctorily; the ending wasn't quite climactic enough to live up to the twist. But still, I enjoyed it.

If you didn't like Ninefox Gambit, I recommend still giving Raven Stratagem a try. I don't know if Raven is actually better than Ninefox, or if I just acclimated to the world more. Or if maybe reading Ninefox near the end of my 2017 Hugos reading just meant I was burnt out by the time I got to it. I'd be curious to reread Ninefox now in any case, but I will also be ordering Revenant Gun to finish off the Machineries of Empire trilogy.

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