TITLE: Raven Stratagem (Machineries of Empire #2)
AUTHOR: Yoon Ha Lee
GENRE: Fiction, Science Fiction
PUBLISHED: June 13, 2017
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
This is a review of the second book in a trilogy. It might contain spoilers for the first book, although it contains no spoilers for the book being reviewed. Please read the first book before reading this review.
Amazing first volumes in a series can be a hard act to follow. They tend to set up a specific bar all other books that come after must at least meet, if not exceed, which a lot of authors find difficult to achieve. Some authors manage to meet the challenge, of course - and those authors are definitely worth following because they show they can maintain or exceed the expectations the first book has created.
Yoon Ha Lee is one of those rare authors, and Raven Stratagem is one of those books. It is the second novel in the Machineries of Empire trilogy and begins some time after the end of Ninefox Gambit. The hexarchate is now facing a new threat: invasion by the Hafn, an enemy they has been held at bay for a long time now. In order to ensure that their territory is not overrun, they send out a fleet led by General Kel Khiruev, with orders to intercept the Hafn before they reach the Fortress of Spinshot Coins. The Fortress of Spinshot Coins is crucial to maintaining the stability of the calendar that fuels the hexarchate’s most powerful weapons and most vital technologies. Should it fall, the hexarchate may very well go down with it.
But before they even get there, they are intercepted by none other than Shuos Jedao, who has possessed the body of Kel Cheris. Using Kel formation instinct, he suborns Khiruev and the entire Kel fleet under her command - except for Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan, who somehow manages to resist formation instinct and defy Jedao.
But Brezan is just one Kel in a large group of them, and the latter is precisely what Jedao wants. Armed with a powerful fleet and accompanied by a small army of (mostly) loyal soldiers, Jedao is now officially the hexarchs’ worst nightmare: a brilliant madman with a grudge and the means to execute whatever plan that grudge calls for. They know they have to stop him - but what are they willing to sacrifice to do so?
Perhaps the best way to discuss this novel is to compare it with its predecessor. Ninefox Gambit has a steep learning curve for the reader; in my review of the novel I describe just how steep that learning curve can be, and how to deal with it. Raven Stratagem, however, dispenses with all of that complicated world-building and launches itself straight into the meat of the story, with nothing more than a refresher in the first chapter just to remind the reader of how the hexarchate works. This makes sense of course, given that most of the heavy-duty world-building has already been accomplished in the first novel, but it also does something interesting to Raven Stratagem: it speeds up the plot quite significantly and leaves more room for other characters.
In Ninefox Gambit the story focused primarily on Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao; through them, the reader learns about the hexarchate, the troubles that beset it, and the rot eating at it from within. Much of the novel is dedicated to building up their characters and the world; the siege plot is almost an excuse to make Cheris and Jedao work together so they can understand each other better, and help the reader peel back the layers of truth and lies surrounding Jedao. This does not mean Ninefox Gambit is badly-written; it just means that it prioritises characterisation and world-building over plot. As a consequence, Ninefox Gambit goes more slowly and feels more intimate, despite the grander space-opera setting of the world itself.
While those intimate moments between characters are still present in Raven Stratagem, it is also clear that the scope of the novel is much bigger than it was in the previous novel. This is best represented by the fact that there are more point-of-view characters in this novel than in Ninefox Gambit: specifically, General Kel Khiruev, Kel Brezan, and Shuos Mikodez - the first hexarch in the series to be given a major role. Through their eyes the reader really begins to see just how immense the hexarchate is - as well as the scope of its internal and external problems. The following excerpt is a good example:
“Have mercy on the child,” Khiruev’s father said at last. “She’s only eleven.”
Mother Ekesra’s eyes blazed with such loathing that Khiruev wanted to shrivel up and roll under a chair. “Then she’s old enough to learn that heresy is a real threat with real consequences.” she said. “Don’t make any more mistakes, Kthero. I’ll never forgive you.”
“A bit late for that, I should say.” Kthero’s face was set. “She won’t forget this, you know.”
“That’s the point,” Mother Ekesra said, still in that deadly voice. It was too late for me to save you when you got it into your head to research deprecated calendricals. But it’s not too late to stop Khiruev from ending up like you.”
Khiruev’s father didn’t flinch when Mother Ekesra laid a hand on each of his shoulders. At first nothing happened. Khiruev dared to hope a reconciliation might be possible after all.
Then they heard the gears.
Maddeningly, the sound came from everywhere and nowhere, clanking and clattering out of step with itself, rhythms abandoned mid-stride, unnerving crystalline chimes that decayed into static. As the clamor grew louder, Khiruev’s father wavered. His outline turned the color of tarnished silver, and his flesh flattened to a translucent sheet through which disordered diagrams and untidy numbers could be seen, bones and blood vessels reduced to dry traceries. Vidona deathtouch.
Mother Ekesra let go. The corpse-paper remnant of her husband drifted to the floor with a horrible crackling noise. But she wasn’t done; she believed in neatness. She knelt to pick up the sheet and began folding it. Paper-folding was an art specific to the Vidona. It was also one of the few arts that the Andan faction, who otherwise prided themselves on their dominance of the hexarchate’s culture, disdained.
When Mother Ekesra was done folding the two entangled swans—remarkable work, worthy of admiration if you didn’t realize who it had once been—she put the horrible thing down, went into Mother Allu’s arms, and began to cry in earnest.
The above excerpt is not only a flashback to Khiruev’s childhood that helps to develop her character but also shows the reader why the Vidona faction is so feared. In Ninefox Gambit it is mentioned in passing that though the Vidona are considered an important part of the hexarchate, they are also the most loathed because of their duty: to maintain the calendar through the torture and extermination of heretics, the pain of their victims providing the fuel that keeps the hexarchate’s vital technologies going. However, given the focus of that novel, the reader does not get to see any examples of the atrocities the Vidona perpetrate.
The excerpt above, though, shows precisely just what they are capable of - and the toll that even they must pay in order to fulfill their duty. Upholding the status quo is the primary duty of the Vidona, as it is of all those ruled by the hexarchate, and the price of that maintenance is steep - even on the Vidona themselves.
That theme - the price paid by others to uphold the status quo - is a theme that is central to the previous novel, and is expanded in this one. In Ninefox Gambit the theme is more personal - and is the driving force behind Cheris and Jedao’s decisions towards the end of the novel. In Raven Stratagem, that question becomes more universal. As Jedao begins to enact his vengeance, those around him begin to see the truth that Jedao and Cheris realised at the conclusion of the first novel: no system built on pain and suffering ought to be allowed to remain standing.
But tearing down an entire system is an enormous task; even a genius like Jedao requires more than just his smarts to bring down the hexarchate. There are very few people like him, and far, far more people like Kel Brezan, who do not have the gifts or the resources to plot a concerted uprising on the same level as Jedao. What are such people to do? Brezan suggests an answer:
A sane person might be forgiven for not feeling a whole lot of affection for Kel Command at this point, but the fate of Khiruev and his swarm might depend on Brezan’s information, and Kel Command wasn’t why Brezan had become a hawk anyway. Indeed, Kel Command was a great argument for avoiding the Kel. Family wasn’t the reason, despite what Brezan had told Shuos Zehun in academy, although family had something to do with it. No: it was that the hexarchate was a terrible place to live, but it would be an even worse one of if no one with a conscience consented to serve it.
…you had to do the next best thing, the only thing left: serve, and hope that serving honorably made some small difference.
Perhaps in the long term an oppressive system must be burnt down and a new, better system built on top of its ashes, but in the meantime, those who work within the system must do what they can to ensure that the system does not become even more destructive, even more oppressive than it already is. Standing up and doing something to change the system is a good thing, of course, but not everyone is in a position to do so openly, or freely. For those people, perhaps the best they can do is to “serve honorably,” and in doing so, become a light of hope for others who might have no hope at all. Not everyone can be a revolutionary, but then again, not all revolutionaries fight at the barricades; sometimes they operate from within the system itself, fighting the good fight in their own small, but no less important, way.
Overall, Raven Stratagem is an excellent continuation of the story begun in Ninefox Gambit - not least because it sheds the weighty world-building of its predecessor and dives straight into a sprawling plot that finally gives truth to the series’ space-opera setting. Despite the expansion of the world and the increase in the pace of the plot, though, this novel does not sacrifice the slower, more introspective moments that made the first novel such a joy to read, nor does it discard the thematic underpinnings of the first novel. Instead, it builds upon those themes via the characters and their interactions with each other, echoing how the first novel used Cheris and Jedao’s interactions to build and elaborate upon the novel’s themes. As a result, Raven Stratagem forms a natural bridge between the beginnings as laid down in Ninefox Gambit going into what promises to be an amazing conclusion in the final novel, Revenant Gun - a conclusion I very definitely look forward to reading.