Review – Raven Stratagem (The Machineries of Empire Book 2) by Yoon Ha Lee

Rating: 9.4 (out of 10)

I must admit I was shocked and a little disappointed when I got through the first chapter of Raven Stratagem. Not because it was bad, mind you; it was just that my memory of the first chapter of Ninefox Gambit – which unceremoniously barrel kicks you into a huge flaming pit of WHAT-THE-F**K-IS-THIS – was still fresh in my mind nearly a year later. Compared to that, the kickoff for Raven Stratagem is just so damned conventional. The setting and the main players are quickly established, as is the central conflict. There is some mildly awkward info-dumping (something Ninefox absolutely refused to do) that explains just about everything you need to know about the world of the Hexarchate, which is considerably more complicated than a few terse sentences will allow. I had to question whether it was even written by the same author.

Before long though, this second dip into The Machineries of Empire gives the people what they want –the exotic weaponry, the surreal settings and gonzo space battles, Lee’s impossibly perfect prose:

The terrain manifested as dizzying blue swirls on the tactical displays, with inclusions that resembled waving strands of kelp, like a captive mantle of ocean. The Fortress’s defenses were beginning to fire on the Hafn, with shifts in the terrain coordinated to permit the guns to speak through momentary windows.

It appears, at first, as if this is going to be another “storm the castle” narrative – with Raven’s Fortress of Spinshot Coins subbing for Ninefox’s Fortress of Scattered Needles – but the enemy Hafn’s assault on Spinshot Coins is only a jumping point for the narrative. The actual story follows three characters on a collision course with the dangerously insane and freshly unleashed General Jedao and his plans for upending the “perfect” order of the Hexarchate’s empire: Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezen, a “crashhawk” who is therefore unsusceptible to formation instinct – the conditioning the Kel use to keep their subordinates in line; General Kel Khiruev, commander of the Kel swarm that Jedao hijacks, whose formation instinct forces her to remain loyal to Jedao against her own will; and Hexarch Shuos Mikodez, who lives decadently as one of the ten most privileged members of the Hexarchate, and has to deal not only with Jedao’s insurrection but with his colleagues plans for immortality, which he himself intends to opt out of.

Most of the info-dump in chapter one, aside from recapping the events of Ninefox, has to do with the command structure of the Hexarchate, and particularly of the Kel, whose formation instinct provides the central dramatic question of the novel: Is there any value in loyalty, in observance of authority, without choice? At the beginning of the novel, Khiruev believes she must kill Jedao so her swarm can continue to protect the Hexarchate from the Hafn’s aggressions, but her formation instinct cripples her with “an emotional need to maintain hierarchy”; Khiruev, under duress of her own making, programs a drone to do the deed she is unable to do herself and hides it in her leg on the way to meet her superior. As Jedao outlines his plans for Spinshot Coins, Lee renders Khiruev’s internal struggle with his usual combination of casual humor and sobering empathy:

My leg itches, Khiruev thought deliberately. This self-deception business wasn’t getting any easier. How did the Shuos manage it? Ironically, formation instinct prevented her from blurting out her plan. She was seized by the conviction that she mustn’t interrupt the senior general.

As Khiruev’s story progresses, her struggles with formation instinct begin to take on subtler dimensions; even, and especially, when her own personal choices satisfy the impulses imposed on her by the conditioning rather that oppose them. Khiruev’s dilemma is contrasted with that of Brezen, the crashhawk who is a loyal and dutiful Kel by choice, and the only Kel soldier capable of carrying out an attack on Jedao without wanting to commit suicide over it. He may have free will, but choices still have consequences.

Ninefox Gambit was a madcap action story full of biting satire; Raven Stratagem is more tightly focused on its main players and the toll that living under the Hexarchate’s authority exacts on their psyches.  It is a different novel with different goals, though like any good second book in a series, it is of like mind, so a clear understanding of the concepts and contexts introduced in Ninefox is essential to reading it.

A sequel – especially one for such an unconventional and original work like Ninefox Gambit – necessarily loses the ability to knock you out of your chair like the first one did. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still catch you off guard. With Raven Stratagem, Yoon Ha Lee continued to hold this reader in sway with his perfect balance of heady ideas and pulpy space opera thrills.

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