RogerBW's Blog

Raven Stratagem, Yoon Ha Lee 16 March 2018

2017 science fiction, second in a trilogy. The rebel and revenant general Shuos Jedao has taken over a war fleet… and is using it to fight the invaders better than anyone else could. How many layers deep does his planning go?

If you haven't read Ninefox Gambit, go and do it; there's not much explanation here of what's what. (And one thing that puzzles everyone in the book until about three-quarters of the way through will be clear to you, as I think it's intended to be.) Read my review, too, because I'm not going to describe the universe again. But there is a surprisingly conventional opening here; where the first book threw one in at the deep end, this one introduces several main characters, makes it clear what their roles are, and seems to be telling a straightforward narrative. It's only a few chapters in that the prose catches light as the first book did.

Her palm hurt. Khiruev discovered that she had been jabbing herself with a screwdriver and stopped. Briefly, she considered removing her weapons so that formation instinct didn't compel her to commit suicide rather than put her plan in motion, but that wouldn't work. It would raise suspicions at high table. Her glove had a small tear in it, which knit itself back together as she watched.

But there's a change in attitude; I think it may be because the primary viewpoint characters are now not Cheris and Jedao as they were before, but two high-ranking Kel (the soldier-caste of the Hexarchate) who enter Jedao's orbit and come away profoundly changed. Jedao himself is less of a participant and more of an enigmatic plot-driver, so we're looking over the shoulders and into the minds not of the protagonists but of people who are mostly along for the ride.

"At ease," Jedao said. "You know, I always hated it when my commanding officers told me to be frank. But hell, I'm going to ask you to be frank.

"I have spent most of an unnaturally long life doing horrible things to people. Assassination. Torture. Treason. Mass murder. It doesn't sound like anything when you pare it down to such a short list, but those were real people. It was—I did real harm. Which is the long way of saying that my personal metric for horrible things is not calibrated right. I need you to tell me how bad this thing is that I'm going to show you."

The first book had lots of preparation and then a bit of fiercely concentrated action. This one mostly eschews the action, though there are some brief space battles, in favour of the people; that's not a bad thing, but the reader is asked to evaluate emotional states of people who are used to projecting multiple layers of deception to everyone, including themselves. Another viewpoint character (of, perhaps, just slightly too many) is the Shuos hexarch Mikodez, who not only has to keep up a reputation as being twistier than anyone else, he has to be in actuality even twistier than that. Working out what he actually wants is one of the major puzzles of the book.

The actual climactic action is again at a remove from the reader; it's been set up in the background and not talked about at all, so it's nearly as much of a surprise to the reader as it is to the viewpoint characters, and it happens in the background too rather than being described by observation. There's also no sense of how difficult it was: did it actually take a genius? If so, why didn't it seem like hard work? If not, why hasn't it been done before? Again, putting a viewpoint on Jedao would have helped solve this, even if it would have brought on the big reveal much earlier in the book.

"What exactly is it that Ragath thinks you're up to?"

[…]

"I imagine Ragath thinks I'm going to conquer the galaxy and make it into a place where your superiors don't randomly bomb an entire swarm just to off one person," Jedao said. He tapped the token against the edge of the table. "I wish I could say this was a low bar for reform. However, our regime's history argues otherwise."

In some ways it's a traditional middle book, with the action slowed down, everybody being jockeyed into position for the climactic final volume, and lots of character development. But actually if the story ended here I wouldn't be unsatisfied; the pieces are all in place and one can posit how things might go. (Perhaps I've been reading too many modern plotless stories lately.)

The two of them suited up quietly. Brezan knew that the Andan cared about the aesthetics of even utilitarian objects like suits, but it was different when you had to wear one yourself. Oh well, given how his year was going, tasteful scrollwork was the least of his problems.

It isn't as amazing as Ninefox Gambit (which was my preference for the Best Novel Hugo in 2016). But it's still extremely good. To be followed this year by Revenant Gun.

This work was nominated for the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

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See also:
Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee

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