By Jacob P. Torres
I’m re-reading Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire novels before I read and review my ARC of his third novel, Revenant Gun. Spoilers abound in this review of the Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee, Book 2 of the Machineries of Empire Trilogy. Raven Stratagem was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award. Also check out my review of the first book.
Cover Description: “Captain Kel Cheris is possessed by a long-dead traitor general. Together they must face the rivalries of the hexarchate and a potentially devastating invasion.
When the hexarchate’s gifted young captain Kel Cheris summoned the ghost of the long-dead General Shuos Jedao to help her put down a rebellion, she didn’t reckon on his breaking free of centuries of imprisonment – and possessing her.
Even worse, the enemy Hafn are invading, and Jedao takes over General Kel Khiruev’s fleet, which was tasked with stopping them. Only one of Khiruev’s subordinates, Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan, seems to be able to resist the influence of the brilliant but psychotic Jedao.
Jedao claims to be interested in defending the hexarchate, but can Khiruev or Brezan trust him? For that matter, will the hexarchate’s masters wipe out the entire fleet to destroy the rogue general?”
What is the book about?
Quick refresher. This story takes places in the Hexarchate, a collection of systems governed by a calendar of advanced mathematics and technology that is as oppressive as it is wondrous. The Hexarchate government is divided into six factions. The Andan are bankers and financiers, the Vidona are cultural enforcers, the Rahal are legislators and judges, the Nirai are inventors and mathematicians, the Shuos are spies, infiltrators and assassins, and the Kel are the military of the Hexarchate. After joining a faction of the government, people give up their family name and take on the faction name in its place. Each faction has specific abilities that were alluded to in the last novel, but the primary focus of the last novel was on the Kel. The Kel use formation instinct to engineer into their soldiers an inability to disobey the orders of a superior offices and through formation instinct generate exotic weapons and defenses by literally putting their soldiers and ships into different formations.
Raven Stratagem picks up the shattered pieces of the last story and runs away with them like they were scissors. Where the last story followed Generals Kel Cheris and the undead ghost of madman Shuos Jedao that was possessing her we’re treated to three new perspectives to follow. The story opens with General Kel Khiruev, commander of the Swanknot Swarm of ships, and her aide Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan waiting on the arrival one Captain Kel Cheris. Upon arrival the readers learn that apparently Cheris’ personality has been subsumed by Jedao’s and he uses his rank’s seniority and the weakness of formation instinct to seize control of the swarm. Jedao quickly removes anyone from the ship that doesn’t have to obey him because of formation instinct which, to his surprise, included Kel Brezan.
The chapters that focus on Khiruev follow her as she is forced by formation instinct to work with Jedao. She fights this impulse at the beginning by trying, and failing, to assassinate him. But as the story progresses they develop a rapport and eventually come to trust each other. For their part they take their fleet of ships and go after an invading force of humans from another spacefaring empire, the Hafn. The Hafn had a role in the events of the last book, precipitating the fall of one of the Hexarchate’s fortresses and the decision of Kel Command to allow Cheris to work with the ghost of Jedao to win the fortress back.
Kel Brezan’s arc of the story focuses on his desire to wrest control of the Swarm back the from Jedao. This is complicated by the fact that he’d just discovered that he was a Crashhawk, or a Kel that formation instinct had failed in. Because of the stigma that comes with being a Crashhawk Brezan has to turn to another faction for aide, calling on an acquaintance from the Shuos Faction and our third main character, Hexarch (faction leader) Shuos Mikodez. Brezan eventually gets back to the Swarm with a new rank of High General so he can basically pull the same trick as Jedao and use formation instinct to retake the swarm.
Mikodez is a sweets-obsessed, amoral bureaucrat in charge of a systems-spanning intelligence agency. His sections aren’t very action filled, he mostly spends his time trying to figure out what the hell is actually going on. Mikodez remarks rather early on that for a psychotic with a grudge against the Hexarchate, his initial actions of going after foreign invaders make little sense and things get more confusing for the three characters as we go on. Jedao spends time fighting the invaders, then waging a propaganda war against the citizens of the Hexarchate, attempting to convince them that he was trying to redeem himself for past actions.
All this culminates when all three of these characters learn that they’d made one wrong assumption, that Kel Cheris had died and been replaced by General Jedao. Cheris had been using Jedao’s memories and mannerisms that she’d received at the end of the first book to pass herself off as Jedao while she worked on her real plan, to reset the calendar of the Hexarchate something only a mathematician as skilled as she is could accomplish. But while everyone was working on figuring out what Jedao was doing, none of them noticed that Cheris was plotting with the servitors (sentient A.I. robots that help each of the factions) to basically overthrow the entire regime of the government.
This is a reveal that wouldn’t have worked like it did if a) Lee hadn’t done such a great job about making us care about Cheris in the first book, and b) if any of the chapters had been told from her perspective. Interestingly, this makes this story still very much Cheris’ and Cheris’ triumph. None of the protaganists of this book really succeed at what they were trying to do. Brezan retakes the swarm but ends up caving and letting Cheris bring down the calendar, Khiruev is arguably in a worse position for herself at the end of the book, and Mikodez’s whole government falls at the cost of his sibling. Mikodez comes closest to winning as he’s able to fiddle with Cheris’ schedule once he figures it out and eliminate some power mad rivals.
What Did I Like About the Book?
So many things! Much about the pacing, adding characters, and plot structure that were minor grievances with the first book have been addressed. The book continues to be very LGBTQ friendly, Brezan is a female that identifies as a man, or in book referred to always as he but occasionally they reference that he has a “womanform” body. For the entirety of the book where people think that Cheris is Shuos Jedao they refer to her as a man with no questions or comments. Brezan comes from a family with just two dads. Khiruev from one with two mothers and a father. Mikodez has a male lover. Mikodez’s assistant Shuos Zehun is an Alt and only referred to in the book as they or their. It’s implied that Jedao/Cheris has a crush on General Khiruev.
The Characters in the book continue to shine. They’re well developed, nuanced, have clear motivations and personalities. In sweeping space battles and worldbuilding, a common failing of authors is to have characters that are bland, or very tropey. Lee avoids this with a skill that you don’t normally see balanced this well.
Lee continues to excel at foreshadowing in really clever ways. He’s toned down the more blatant examples making the subtler stuff harder to catch. The reveal about Cheris is foreshadowed in a lot of ways throughout the book (and even the title! Cheris comes the “City of Ravens Feasting”) she’s seen playing with a peculiar stone at one point which is likely her raven talisman from the first book, and she’s seen playing games with the servitors in several instances. The games in particular were easy to attribute to Jedao’s personality who was described as an excessive game player in book one, but he never played with a human character only servitors who book one established as being very fond of Cheris.
This book continues to expand on the bad in the Hexarchate empire, each character has many reasons to be unhappy with the empire. Some very personal, some much more general. But he also fills in the colors of the empire as still having very positive elements. There doesn’t appear to be significant hunger or poverty, people are well educated and generally protected, and as mentioned earlier there is very little prejudice, even among the most conservative elements of the society about race, gender or sexual preference.
Lee has also toned down the inaccessibility. You’re still left to use your imagination and intelligence to fill in a lot of the story, but it doesn’t feel as if you’ve been thrown into quite a deep of a pool as before. I’m curious if it feels like this though because of a change in writing or just that I was more familiar with the setting. This probably isn’t a story that works wonderfully without reading the previous one. Maybe?
Who was my Favorite Character?
Tempted to just say Cheris again, like with book one. But as she was one of the most important characters, she wasn’t a point of focus for the chapters. So, I’m going to say General Kel Khiruev. Khiruev definitely has the least enviable position. She’s forced to obey someone she clearly thinks is a madman, her one real attempt to rebel is a botched assassination attempt that ends up killing her subordinates rather than Jedao. She comes to realize that whatever is going on here with Jedao he is being fairer to her troops than can generally be expected of from command and that Jedao might be fighting for something she didn’t know that she could hope for. One of Khiruev’s mothers was a member of the Vidona faction who executed heretics and she killed Khiruev’s father, a teacher, for spreading heretic thoughts. This action drove her to join the Kel military, finding comfort in the conformity of the military’s formation instinct. Her big moment comes midway through the book where she’s given an out that would let her overthrow Jedao and return control of the fleet to herself. But instead, she activates a suicide clause, giving her only 100 days, to disobey the orders of a superior. This let the fleet remain in Jedao’s hands. It was a powerful moment, because she could’ve done this when Jedao first took command. However, Khiruev wasn’t willing to commit suicide for the Hexarchate, and while she wasn’t certain (or even in the ballpark) of what Jedao was doing, she saw, or inferred, that he was trying to make a better Hexarchate and that she was willing to die for. Jedao’s actual plan ended up saving her from her self-imposed suicide too.
What Did I Not Like?
I wasn’t a huge fan of Kel Brezan. He felt the least polished of the three characters and for someone who wasn’t fond of the system he was serving, so much so that it took very little convincing on Cheris’ part to let her go through with her plan. He started the book with so much wrath and anger reserved for Jedao that his ultimate half-turn to accomplice felt hurried more than anything else. It also left the book with a very nebulous antagonist of “the shitty government that we have” and less a specific person.
This had some of the typical problems you see in middle of the series or second volume books. There was a lot more setup and exposition that screwed with the pacing of the novel on the whole. Some chapters felt like the only point to them was to do some worldbuilding here. But I don’t want to discount the possibility of foreshadowing to events in Book 3, there were certainly some elements in book one that only became important as clues for elements in book 2.
I really felt like I didn’t get enough Kel Cheris in this book. Like I mentioned earlier, the twist about Cheris/Jedao wouldn’t have worked with the story told from her perspective, but that was a really well drawn character that I connected with and empathized with and I had been hoping for more story from her perspective. This is always a risk with switching protagonists in a series. Recently, this did not work for me with Daniel O’Malley’s switch from the Rook to Stilletto (I did not enjoy the second book as much) but at least here, even though I missed Cheris, I still really enjoyed the book.
4.0 out of 5 cups of tea. I’m rating it just under the first book because I just couldn’t stand Brezan at times. Improved storytelling and structure from the first book in the series has the sequel meet and, in some places, exceed the first book. This continues to be an excellent study in engaging, well drawn characters that really makes you give a damn about them. Lee continues to use foreshadowing to create a good mystery in this delightfully odd SciFi setting. The big climactic space fight was literally two divergent forces throwing math at each other to get a tactical advantage. Third act twists are numerous but not overwhelming or unwelcome and sets the finale of the trilogy up to be very interesting.
|Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5 cups of tea. Improved storytelling and structure from the first book in the series has the sequel meet and, in some places, exceed the first book.|
|+ Continues to be excellent at worldbuilding and mystery building.||– Not enough Kel Cheris!|
|+ Overall the new characters were engaging and fun and made for a great expansion of the world.||– Some middle book pacing and plot issues distract mildly from the story.|
|+ Pacing picks up in the last third, and there are a bunch of fun twists that helped resolve this book and setup the finale.||– A couple character fails in that Brezan really got on my nerves and Mikodez had a weird relationship with his sibling.|