Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the sequel to Ninefox Gambit, which is one of the best books I read last year. That said, that book did require a severe learning curve: the reader is thrown into this complex world with no explanation, and basically has to sink or swim. Anyone persisting beyond the first couple of chapters was richly rewarded, but it was an uphill grind for some.
Thankfully, this book pretty much solves that problem. All the things that made Ninefox so good are still here: the technology that fulfills Arthur C. Clarke's dictum of "advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic"; the political maneuvering and machinations; the bleak nature of the Hexarchate; and the great characters, especially Shuos Jedao and Kel Cheris. But this complicated stew is much more digestible this time around, and I think that's because the author has fully settled into his world. The writing is more accessible and self-assured, and Lee offers us actual explanations for things! They're not the least bit draggy or intrusive, flowing along nicely with the story.
And what a story it is: the four-hundred-year-old undead General Jedao who finally has the chance to gain his objective--to bring down the Hexarchate. In this universe, the Hexarchate is the ruling interstellar empire based on "abstract algebra," which is math that literally shapes the reality these people live in. (A similar idea would be a god who requires its worshipers' belief to continue to exist.) This veers very close to "unstoppable force meeting immovable object" territory, because if your high calendar makes your empire and your "exotic technologies"--i.e. your stardrive, technology and weapons--possible, then those in power will do just about anything to maintain it.
This is, I think, the genius of Lee's universe, because at its heart it asks the simple question: What price will you pay for your way of life? For so many in the Hexarchate, for hundreds of years, the answer was: Any loss of life, any suppression of people and rights and freedoms, is worth it. But then Shuos Jedao came along, and decided the Hexarchate is not worth it. For that heresy he was thrown into the Black Cradle (this is the one thing that's only vaguely explained, but as far as I can tell his uploaded personality was placed in something like a sensory deprivation tank. It's a severe form of torture to be sure, and he's kept "alive" only because he's a tactical genius and let out when the rulers have a use for him, usually to put down another calendrical heresy). Ninefox was the story of Shuos Jedao setting his centuries-old plan in motion at last, and this book is that plan coming to fruition.
We're introduced to several new characters, and I loved every one of them. While the previous book stuck pretty closely to Kel Cheris' POV, these new characters open up the world, and we can see just how ghastly living in the Hexarchate is. At the same time, there is a nice thread of wry humor running through the book, which is a welcome thing, as it balances what is a fairly grimdark narrative. At the end there is seeming success, but when Cheris reflects on what it took to get to this point, her depressing but true observation is: "The war never ends."
(And of course it doesn't. There is one major player not dealt with, which will presumably be the focus of the third book in the trilogy, Revenant Gun.)
This book is just fantastic, every bit as good as the first if not better. I think it actually makes a better entry point to the series. I would recommend starting with this book and then picking up Ninefox Gambit. Either way, you're in for a treat.
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