Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee (Orbit, 978-0-316-38867-2, $26, hc, 439 pages) September 2017
a review by Rich Horton
|(Cover by Chris Moore)|
I was very impressed by Yoon Ha Lee’s first novel, Ninefox Gambit, which made both the Hugo and Nebula shortlists last year. Raven Stratagem is the sequel (one more book, Revenant Gun, is due in June to complete the Machineries of Empire Trilogy, and there have been numerous short stories set in the same universe, including “Extracurricular Activities”, which will appear in my upcoming Best of the Year volume.) One thing to note about these books is that they succeed quite well in being standalone in the sense that each of the first two books reaches a satisfactory conclusion. (That is not to say that I recommend reading Raven Stratagem without having read Ninefox Gambit, though I think one could without too much trouble.)
As the book open, General Kel Khiruev and her swarm of warships have been tapped to deal with the heretical Hafn uprising. However, she is waiting for an unexpected new Captain, Kel Cheris, for reasons obscure to her. When Cheris comes on board, they suddenly realize that she has been possessed by the undead General Shuos Jedao, who has been kept in the “Black Cradle” for 400 years, after he massacred millions (including his own crew) at the Battle of Hellspin Station. Jedao is a tactical genius, and the Hexarchate’s military faction, the Kel, release him to be “anchored” to another Kel every so often to make use of his ability. He and Kel Cheris (his anchor) just dealt with the Hafn heretics at the Fortress of Scattered Needles. All this backstory is the subject of Ninefox Gambit.
As Jedao outranks Khiruev, he takes over the swarm from her, and the Kel crew are helpless to resist because of “formation instinct”. It soon become clear that he has rebelled against the Hexarchate, but the formation instinct prevents the crew from opposing him, though Khiruev barely manages an assassination attempt. Jedao’s immediate mission, however, seems to be just what Khiruev had been ordered to do – defeat the Hafn. And soon he is mentoring Khiruev in some sense, and indeed bringing Khiruev to understand why he is rebelling.
There are two more threads. One concerns Colonel Kel Brezan, who is a “crashhawk” – immune to formation instinct. He could resist Jedao, so Jedao had him expelled from the swarm (but not killed, key to Jedao’s ethic). Brezan, desperate to prove his loyalty, jumps through hoops to get the message about Jedao’s takeover to Kel Command – and eventually is charged with accompanying an assassin who will kill Jedao, with now General Brezan taking command of the swarm.
The other thread follows the Hexarch of the Shuos faction, Mikodez, who seems to be the most powerful of the six Hexarchs, and who is coordinating the reaction to Jedao’s insurrection. But Mikodez has some secret plans of his own … This thread also involves his brother/double/lover Intradez, and his aide Zehun, who has a history with Brezan, and a plan to make all the Hexarchs immortal (one already is, but in an unsatisfactory fashion).
The novel is interesting reading throughout, with plenty of action (and some pretty cool battle scenes), some rather ghastly (in a good sense) comic bits, and lots of pain and angst. There is a continuing revelation of just how awful the Hexarchate is, with the only defense offered even by its supporters being “anything else would be worse”. There is genocide, lots of murders, lots of collateral damage. The resolution is well-planned and integral to the nature of this universe, with a good twist or two to boot. It’s a good strong novel that I enjoyed a lot.
That said (those “buts” again!), Raven Stratagem didn’t make quite the impact on me that Ninefox Gambit did. Some of that could be middle book syndrome, but not so much, really – as I said before, these two books do a good job avoiding the structural issues, and semi-cheats, that sometimes pop up with trilogies. I suppose I found some of the battle scenes, and some of the star travel in general, a bit too, well, easy, as, too, some of the characters’ personal convictions seemed to change a bit quickly. These are not major problems, but I think they are reasons I consider it not quite as good as the first book (which had the usual first book advantage of introducing a lot of cool stuff). I am certainly looking forward to the conclusion, and there are indeed mysteries and loose ends enough to be resolved.
I won’t know where it ranks on my Hugo ballot until I finish reading the nominees, but of the four I’ve read, I do think I’d put it first. But I don’t consider it as good as the five novels I nominated for the Hugo (though actually the final two on my Hugo nomination list and Raven Stratagem are about the same quality in my mind – at the level where we have to acknowledge that these are different books trying to do different things, each succeeding pretty well in their own ways.)
One final amusing note – Khiruev’s swarm is called the Swanknot, referring, I assume, to swans with their necks intertwined (or knotted) – her emblem. But I couldn’t help thinking of it as “Swank not” – meaning perhaps that the swarm isn’t too luxuriously appointed.