16 September 2019

Review: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Trade paperback, 334 pages
Published 2019 (contents: 2012-19)

Acquired June 2019
Read July 2019
Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

This is a collection of stories set in the world of Lee's Machineries of Empire series (Ninefox Gambit, et al.), some previously published, several original to this collection. They kind of fall into four broad categories.

First, there are general scene-setting stories, pieces that aren't stories, really, but fragments of worldbuilding: "How the Andan Court," "Seven Views of the Liozh Entrance Exam," "Calendrical Rot." What you think of these will depend on what you think of the world of the series I suspect; I thought they were more curious than anything else, though I wish "Calendrical Rot" had served its original purpose as prologue to Ninefox, as maybe I would have understood that book more quickly.

Then there are prequel stories about the main characters of Ninefox Gambit, Shuos Jedao and Kel Cheris. These range from being just a couple pages to being full novelettes, and the Jedao ones go from the night he was conceived, through his childhood, up to key moments in his military career. Frustratingly, they are almost but not quite in chronological order. How interesting you find these will probably depend on how interested you are in Jedao. I'm not sure that learning he had a pet cat did a whole lot for me, but rereading "Extracurricular Activities" was fun, and "The Battle of Candle Arc" was the most straightforward explanation of calendrical warfare the series has ever provided. I would have liked more Cheris stories than the two we got, and honestly, I don't find Jedao terribly interesting. Give me some Kel Brezan prequels! I did really enjoy the Cheris story "Birthdays," which gives some insight into how the Hexarchate's calendar affects people's day-to-day lives.

Third, there are a few follow-ups to the original trilogy. A flash piece about Kel Brezan going to an aquarium; "Gamer's End," a second-person story about someone being trained by Jedao; and "Glass Cannon," a novella about Jedao's reunion with Cheris after the events of Revenant Gun. I wish the chronological placement of "Gamer's End" was clearer-- I couldn't figure out where it could possibly fit until I looked it up on-line after reading-- and the twist is kind of obvious. "Glass Cannon" is the longest story in the whole book, and it's an enjoyable high-stakes action piece with good character work and big implications for the future of this universe... should Lee ever choose to return to it.

Finally, there's a single story (the first in the book) that doesn't directly relate to the original trilogy, "The Chameleon's Gloves." I found this disappointing, and for a reason that relates to what makes some other of Lee's stories disappointing. "Chameleon's Gloves" sets up an interesting idea, that of a "haptic chameleon" who can perfectly imitate others' body language... but then tells a generic Star Wars-ish story where a wisecracking duo has to dispose of a gigantic superweapon, barely making use of its own concept. "Extracurricular Activities" is similar, mentioning its antagonists have a unique understanding of reality... but then telling a pretty straightforward (if enjoyable) caper story where the sfnal elements feel irrelevant. Most of the shorter pieces here are only nominally sf. Lee comes up with great worlds and great concepts, but I feel like the stories he tells make inadequate use of those worlds and concepts except as backdrop. I want the stories and concepts and plot twists to rise out of the sfnal stuff, but it doesn't consistently happen; one of the things that makes "Battle of Candle Arc" enjoyable is that it's the one Machineries of Empire space combat story where the fact that calendrical warfare is about the calendar actually feels relevant, instead of being flavor.

Anyway, this all makes it seem like I didn't like the book, but I actually did. In short form, Lee's writing is usually breezy fun, and the details of the worldbuilding are enjoyable to read about. The world of the Hexarchate is complicated and feels real, and has some interesting sfnal things to say about imperialism and oppression (it's not enough that we rule you, but you must think as we do). I would like to reread Ninefox Gambit now and see if it goes better for me than the first time.

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