21 September 2018

Raven Stratagem

A review of Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris, 2017)
Originally published in Interzone

This is the sequel to Yoon Ha Lee’s award-winning first novel, Ninefox Gambit, which was arguably last year’s most original SF novel, and probably also the year’s most complex and difficult to read novel. So can Lee repeat his success with this second volume of his Machineries of Empire trilogy?

Ninefox Gambit introduced us to Cheris, an infantry captain in the Hexarchate’s Kel faction. Because of her mathematical gifts, she was chosen to host the personality (soul?) of Shuos Jedao, the greatest military genius in the history of the Hexarchate (and its most notorious mass murderer). Between them, they thwarted a Hafn plot against the Hexarchate only to become the victims of a brutal assassination attempt once they were no longer of use to their superiors.

As Raven Stratagem opens, Cheris appears to have survived to rendezvous with a Hexarchate war fleet under the command of General Kel Khiruev. However, as soon as she is on board the flagship, she reveals herself to be Shuos Jedao. As such, she/he outranks Khiruev and can exploit Kel formation instinct to seize command. Ostensibly, his/her intention is to continue the war against the Hafn.

One of the fleet’s senior officers, Kel Brezan, attempts to resist Jedao’s takeover and in so doing discovers that he is a ‘crashhawk’, a Kel who is able to resist formation instinct. Normally a crashhawk would be treated as a traitor, but Kel High Command can see a use for him so instead promote him. His mission is to return to Jedao’s fleet, assist an assassination attempt on Jedao, and use his new rank to re-establish control of the fleet.

In this novel, Lee introduces the Hexarchs, the leaders of the factions that make up the Hexarchate, and gives us a flavour of their inter-factional squabbling and plotting. Most of the Hexarchs are obsessed with attaining immortality – a state that has allegedly been achieved by the strangely absent Nirai Hexarch, Kujen.

The exception is Mikodez, Hexarch of the Shuos. He has no desire for immortality, which in his view, ‘merely shows you what kind of monster you already are’. And he has no illusions about his own capacity for evil. He is quite happy to plot the destruction of his fellow Hexarchs. And if a covert alliance with Jedao can help him achieve that, so be it.

Lee’s world building is fascinating. We learn a lot more about the Hexarchate in this novel. He has envisaged a grandiose exercise in social engineering rooted in an exotic calendar, which depends on ritual torture to keep it functioning smoothly. And everything else depends on the smooth running of the calendar, from the military formations and esoteric weapons of the Kel, to the mothdrive that powers the Hexarchate’s ships, to the special abilities of the factions. Of course, all this comes at a cost: Lee’s Hexarchate is the ultimate totalitarian dystopia, and its most successful members are functional psychopaths.

An interesting side issue is Lee’s presentation of sexuality in the Hexarchate. Given the rigidity of the calendrical system described in these novels, I would have expected a correspondingly rigid approach to issues of sexuality and gender. In fact, these are surprisingly fluid, with characters changing gender and/or sexual orientation with apparent ease.

Without exception, Lee’s characters are complex and interesting – no mean feat when the society that has created them tends to dehumanize its citizens. Of course, all of them are damaged in one way or another. Mikodez is prepared to sacrifice his own brother to the cause. The Hexarchs are willing to use genocide as a tool in a vain attempt to influence Cheris/Jedao. Cheris/Jedao’s actions lead directly to the death of her parents. None of these characters should be likable. And yet Lee manages to convey that they are as much victims as villains. If they are evil, it is because the system that has created them is evil.

I particularly enjoyed the enigma that is the identity of Cheris/Jedao. By not writing from her/his/their perspective, Lee keeps the reader guessing about exactly what has happened. Is this Jedao in Cheris’s body? Or Cheris with Jedao’s memories? Or a novel fusion of the two? And even when the truth is apparently revealed at the end of the novel, one is left wondering whether this is really the case. Or does it just suit Cheris/Jedao for those around him/her to believe this for the time being?

Lee’s writing is a joy. It is replete with memorable images and phrases and leavened with black humour. And through it all runs a biting critique of (totalitarian) power structures.

In sum, Raven Stratagem is a brilliantly complex piece of writing that fully lives up to the promise of Ninefox Gambit. My one caveat would be, if you haven’t yet read Ninefox Gambit, you should probably tackle it first.

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