Rating: 9.1 (out of 10)
Revenant Gun, the final book in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, opens with its most infamous character displaced in time. Garach Jedao Shkan’s most recent memory is as a first year Shuos cadet serving the Heptarchate – yet here he is 400 years later, with the now-Hexarchate in complete disarray, and Nirai Kujen, the sole remaining Hexarch, explaining to him that he is suddenly a general tasked with leading a fleet against two different successor states: the rebellious Compact, and the presumptuous Protectorate. Kujen’s ultimate goal is to restore the Hexarchate to its pre-rebellion state and stabilize the high calendar, and while this young resurrected Jedao construct has no memory of the battles he later won or the genocide his older self is famous for, Kujen is betting that enough of Jedao the brilliant strategist had been formed by this point, while he also hopes to capitalize on the terror struck by the very mention of Jedao’s name.
Of course, all the scary bits of Jedao’s memory and personality are housed in the mind of the rebel instigator Kel Cheris. To wipe out the Hexarchate once and for all, Cheris must find a way to kill the unkillable Kujen, while her ally, Compact High General Kel Brezen, jockeys for strategic territory against his counterpart, Protector General Kel Inesser. At this point in the overall narrative of the trilogy, Lee has already untethered the wrecking ball and smashed this world into powdery fragments. The structure of Revenant Gun, especially in the early chapters, reflects both the time-displaced nature and splintered personalities of its major players – the young, incomplete Jedao, the split psyche of what has become of Cheris, the immortal, sociopathic Kujen, the crashhawk Brezen – by toggling through a wider roster of perspectives than the previous two books, and through different points in the nine years since the events of Raven Stratagem.
The upstart, democratically inclined Compact is nothing like Ninefox Gambit’s exuberantly doomed calendrical heretics from The Fortress of Scattered Needles; when following Cheris or Kujen or young Jedao, Revenant Gun pulls off the chess-like dynamism of a spy thriller, while Brezen – perpetually pushed to the brink of exhaustion, enduring chaos for the dubious hope of future stability – lends the narrative a sobering counterpoint. The surprising addition of a servitor, the snakeform Hemiola, among the ever-shifting perspectives is also a canny choice: one of Ninefox’s most humane moments came from a servitor’s point of view, and here, Lee puts Hemiola in a position to make one of the novel’s most ethically consequential choices, with clear-sighted effect.
Like its predecessors, Revenant Gun doesn’t shy away from serious themes or intimate observations, while its author has the good taste to recognize that space opera is, above all, meant to be fun. Lee’s adroit prose always strives for balance, even when reveling in pandemonium. His shrewd humor and sense of irony are perfectly suited for a story largely concerned with military ethics, where service doesn’t end with death if one is deemed useful enough. As the concluding volume to this phenomenal and unconventional sci-fi series, Revenant Gun is both riotous and perfectly controlled.
Check out my Q&A with Yoon Ha Lee as part of the Revenant Gun Blog Tour.