Book Review: Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee
By Jacob P. Torres
I received an ARC of Yoon Ha Lee’s third novel, Revenant Gun in exchange for an honest review. This spoiler-free review will cover the conclusion of the Machineries of Empire trilogy. There are spoilers to the first two novels, so if you haven’t read those be sure to read them first. And be sure to check out my review of the previous books, Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem.
Cover Description: “When Shuos Jedao wakes up for the first time, several things go wrong. His few memories tell him that he’s a seventeen-year-old cadet—but his body belongs to a man decades older. Hexarch Nirai Kujen orders Jedao to reconquer the fractured hexarchate on his behalf even though Jedao has no memory of ever being a soldier, let alone a general. Surely a knack for video games doesn’t qualify you to take charge of an army?
Soon Jedao learns the situation is even worse. The Kel soldiers under his command may be compelled to obey him, but they hate him thanks to a massacre he can’t remember committing. Kujen’s friendliness can’t hide the fact that he’s a tyrant. And what’s worse, Jedao and Kujen are being hunted by an enemy who knows more about Jedao and his crimes than he does himself…”
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 configurations.
In the previous books, we met Kel Cheris a soldier who had the ghost of General Shuos Jedao place in her head, allowing them to recapture a hexarchate fortress from heretics. Cheris’ ability at math combined with Jedao’s tactical abilities were deemed too dangerous by the Hexarchate and they attempted to assassinate them. The event killed Jedao finally but left Cheris with most of his abilities, mannerisms, and memoires. In short order, Cheris took advantage of formation instinct, specifically a soldier’s inability to disobey a superior officers orders and captured a Hexarchate fleet. Using the fleet, she attacked the Hexarchate’s enemies as a cover for her real plan. To replace the calendar system of mathematics that allowed for some of the Hexarchate’s more insidious technologies. It also eliminated most of the leaders of the Hexarchate, called Hexarchs. The two surviving Hexarchs are Shuos Mikodez and Niraii Kujen.
The third book in the series picks up nine years after the events in the Raven Stratagem. The loss of the calendar system has fractured the hexarchate into pieces, there are many smaller rebellious systems and two big rival factions: The Compact led by High General Kel Brezan and the Protectorate led by General Kel Inesser. Cheris has been missing for nine years, as has the main antagonist of the whole trilogy Nirai Kujen. Like the previous book, this book tells its story through several different characters. The book follows Inesser, Brezan, an A.I. Servitor named Semiola, and a new version of Shuos Jedao, the teenage memories of the general, leftovers from the memories that Cheris gained at the end of book one.
The book follows two main threads. The conflict between Brezan and Inesser for control of the territory of the Hexarchate and the conflict between all of these characters and Hexarch Nirai Kujen who wants to reassert control over a system that he created and has been a powerful member of the ruling elite for centuries. This is the first book in the series to split the narrative between past and present events, Brezan’s chapters tell the story of the nine years in between book 2 and book 3 until they’re caught up at about the midpoint of the book.
What Did I Like About the Book?
World building and characters continue to be exceptionally well done. While this novel had the least amount of worldbuilding of the three, it was still executed well and imaginatively. This novel had a slightly darker tone in it, which helped set the scene for the big showdown and added suspense to the climax of the series. The book continues to be LGBTQ friendly, though like in the previous books there is little emphasis on romance or relationships in the series.
The two conflicting societies really highlight how the old Hexarchate was an oppressive regime. But it also plays with the reality that just because you topple a shitty system doesn’t mean it will be quick or easy to set up something better. There were unintended consequences of getting rid of the old calendar. The protectorate uses the old system of technologies and we see a government that’s become more oppressive after the schism. In the Compact there is more civil unrest and some of the technologies they depend on for commerce and warfare have become unpredictable or completely incapable of function.
This third book is probably Lee’s best example of using foreshadowing and tiny unexpected set pieces to create a host of twists and turns and some mystery in what on paper appears to be a straightforward plot. Small elements from previous books continue to pop up in this one but would only really be meaningful to people that have read the previous books.
Who was my Favorite Character?
Semiola. In previous books the servitors had important roles either to plot or character development, but they didn’t get to have their own story. What we did get was interesting but it was a fun change of pace for the series to have one of the main protagonists be a servitor. In just his stuff, Semiola goes on almost the entire hero’s journey. Semiola starts the story as one of three A.I. caretakers of a vault of Nirai Kujen’s secrets. Cheris, using her memories from Jedao, gains access to the vault in an attempt to track down Nirai Kujen. Semiola and Cheris bond over their love of terrible dramas. Semiola gets to discover this whole interconnected community of servitors that have arisen as of Cheris’ efforts and of which she’s an honored part of. Semiola’s chapters felt the freshest, while the other characters largely explored themes and settings that had already been established in the previous books, though Semiola we discovered new parts in this world. It would’ve been neat to see even more of the servitors and their society.
What Did I Not Like?
Sometimes in the last book of the series, it can feel like there is too much going on. The book has to have its own plot but at the same time wrap up the plot and hanging threads of the series as well. Executed well this isn’t a problem but miss and your book can feel rushed or missing crucial pieces. This one definitely felt rushed. Especially the second half of the book.
I liked the teenage Jedao the least of all of the characters we’re asked to invest in. He felt like the character with the least agency, destined to fall to the impulses that made him such a villain in the first book, but without the depth of character or an intriguing and likable foil. He does ultimately succumb to the demons of his unremembered future and I was left with little to sympathize or empathize with.
Brezan had what felt like the most unresolved arc in the series. He rose to the rank of High General in book two largely by circumstance and not merit and was stuck running a nation after a revolution that he really had no part in achieving. Ruling over the Compact has brought him into conflict with his family, specifically his oldest sister who serves as an aide to Inesser. By the end of the book this conflict was left largely unresolved, and honestly its presence did little to drive the plot. Brezan was my least favorite character in book 2, and in book 3 he largely seems to be there to fill in the history of the intervening years.
That it’s over! Lee has mentioned that this is his last planned novel in this setting, though he does apparently have some short fiction in the works in the same universe. Especially with how rushed the second half of this book felt, it would’ve been nice to see one or tow more books in this series. While this was a good conclusion to the series, I’m going to miss seeing the characters again in a book next year.
4.0 out of 5 cups of tea for this book and the series as a whole. Yoon Ha Lee concludes his debut trilogy with a satisfying end to a series full of heart, charm, and innovation. I came because I heard about the wild, math-powered world created for this universe, I stayed because I loved the wonderfully crafted characters, characters you cared about. I genuinely look forward to what we’ll get from him next. The rough parts in his books are understandable in an author’s early works and are more than compensated for by the quality of everything else. Lee also demonstrates a clear ability to improve upon his writing which you can see in the development of the series. I’m sad to see this series end, but I’m happy with the way it did and that I didn’t have to wait a decade for the conclusion of a series.
|Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5 cups of tea. Yoon Ha Lee concludes his debut trilogy with a satisfying end to a series full of heart, charm, and innovation.|
|+ A really good end to a really good series. That Epilogue!||– Jedao the younger wasn’t as captivating of an antagonist as Jedao the elder was in the first book.|
|+ You’re invested in the characters and pacing built suspense well.||– Resolving the plot of this book and the plot of the series felt a little rushed.|
|+ We likely have not seen the last Yoon Ha Lee book.||– Brezan’s arc felt unfinished and the tension with his family unresolved.|