Friday, July 14, 2017

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: Raven Stratagem (Machineries of Empire #2) by Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem is the sequel to Ninefox Gambit, which I loved when I read it last year (My pick for this year's Hugo). Both books take place in a fascinating Science Fiction Universe whereby much of the universe's technology is powered by the adherence of an area's people to a specific "calendar" - feast days, memorials, rememberences.....and of course, Ritual tortures.  Failure to comply with the calendar can cause the technology to stop working, and "heretic" groups that form their own calendars pose their own threat to the dominant force in the galaxy.

Meanwhile, much of the drive beyond "calendrical" technology is driven by extremely complex mathematics - knowledge of how the calendar is altered in certain areas or by heretical actions can be imputed by mathematical calculations and such calculations can allow warring parties to alter their tactics in such a way to have beneficial effects on battles - for instance, one faction can manifest weaponry/effects based upon being in certain formations if they are in the proper calendar, based near entirely on mathematical computations.

Long Review continues after the Jump (I've avoided spoilers for Ninefox Gambit as much as I can). Note, you COULD in theory start the series with this book, but I don't recommend it:

Ninefox Gambit started this series (although if I have this correctly, this universe was first explored in a few short stories) last year, with a story involving the dominant government known as the hexarchate - made up of six factions who attempt to maintain their dominant calendar - requiring someone to help them retake a crucial space fortress -one crucial to maintaining the calendar - overrun by heretics.  Only this fortress has seemingly unbreakable defenses.

Enter Kel Cheris, an infantry captain who is a mathematical genius, and a member of the "Kel" faction - a faction in which every soldier is programmed for ABSOLUTE obedience to orders from their superiors.  Her Solution is both ingenius and insane - to obtain the aid of a former military genius named Shuos Jedal.  Two problems - First, Jedao's physical body is long dead, and his mind has been held in storage for hundreds of years and will need to be anchored to a living person to be used and Second, more importantly, while Jedao never lost a battle, his final military campaign ended with him massacring both the enemy and HIS OWN SIDE with weapons of mass destruction, culminating with him personally executing his own executive staff.  No one knows why Jedao went mad and did what he did, and to use him, Cheris will have to link his "mad" mind with hers.

That was the plot of Ninefox Gambit.  Raven Stratagem opens shortly afterwards, with Jedao resurfacing after its events and taking command of a Kel Battlefleet.  The Kel commanders of the fleet are mainly helpless before him- their faction conditions their soldier to absolute obedience to the highest ranking officer - and Jedao, having never been stripped of his rank of general, IS the highest ranking officer.  The only one who can resist him is Kel Brezan, whose obedience (known as "formation instinct") malfunctions and leaves him free to make his own choices.  Together with the other two main characters, the controlled by Jedao General Kel Khiruev and Shuos Mikodez, the leader of the Intelligence and Assassination faction of the Hexarchate, the characters attempt to figure out what Jedao's actual game is and whether they can or even should attempt to stop him.  Oh and then there's the maniacal Immortal Mathematical Genius Nirai Kujen lurking in the background, for some nefarious purpose......

Anyhow, enough plot summary.  The book arguably cheats a little bit, in that we no longer are following the points of view of Cheris and Jedao, but now only see Jedao's actions from the outside perspectives of Brezan, Mikodez, and Khiruev (and a few othes).  Readers of Ninefox Gambit however, will be unsurprised by the reveal 2/3 of the way through the book, as it follows quite naturally from Ninefox Gambit's ending (and readers may easily guess it).  It doesn't matter, all three new POV characters are particularly interesting with depth, and the plot is still mindblowing in its twists and turns, even if they aren't completely unpredictable.

The book actually is more comprehensible than its predecessor, perhaps because we're already used to this world. Ninefox Gambit's biggest flaw is that Lee doesn't bother to explain to his readers how the world works - there are no info dumps, you just have to dive straight in and figure it out.  That made the book surely unreadable to some, but if you could get through it, it made the book phenomenal.  If you've gotten through Ninefox Gambit, this book won't be any problem in that regard.

Like Book 1 of this series, this book doesn't end on a cliffhanger as much as it does end in a way that is both satisfying and yet includes quite a few hanging threads for the next book to follow up on.  The finale to the trilogy doesn't appear to have a publication date alas.  If there's one complaint I have about this book it's that the main antagonist of the series (or at least, the character who seems to fill that role), goes missing early in this book, pops up for a single chapter midway through, and then disappears again.  It's kind of obnoxious given the clear importance of that character.  To a lesser extent, another character we've never really met in the series is referenced a LOT making you think she will come into play in this book, and she never does (a post on the author's blog makes it seem like she'll be in play in the next book, unsurprisingly).

But these are minor quibbles.  I should add also that this book features a number of LBGTQ characters - one of our POV main characters is Trans, as are two other side characters, at least one side character is non-binary, and no one has any issue with relationships with the same sex. They just are something that occurs naturally in this universe.

Anyhow, if you like a book involving multiple chessmasters battling in space with both military forces and mathematical calculations, this will be heaven for you.  And really, if you like SF and can get through some terminology confusion, you should love this series.  I've reread both books since reading this book first a couple of times, and the series is so deep that it seems to reveal some new things every time. It's great.  Easily in my top 3 books published this year so far.

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