Okay, so let’s say right up front that unless you are a regular reader of hard science fiction, this will be a difficult, dense book to get through. I read a fair-to-middling amount of science fiction and fantasy — it’s a regular genre for me — but this was a challenging read, because Yoon Ha Lee drops you into the world and explains nothing. There aren’t any info-dumps. You pick it all up along the way. I was forty pages in before I felt like I was understanding almost anything at all.
However, this world, which is at war, and these people, who are highly skilled and trained in their separate areas of society, are totally fascinating. It’s like walking into a geode: slivers of sharp interesting bits keep poking out at you from apparently random places, and they are beautiful and cruel, and you have no understanding of how they got there until you understand crystallization and volcanic voids and infilling, which you won’t until nearly the end of the book. Uh, geode.
But it’s worth it.
In this world, the societal and military stability of the government (hexarchate) rests on the calendar. Everyone has to be on board with the same way of reckoning time, including feast days and remembrances, which means it’s not just a calendar, it’s a belief system. Anyone who wants to do it another way is a heretic; if it’s an individual they can be tortured, but if it’s a group they must be wiped out, or calendrical rot will set in and destabilize the regime.
Captain Kel Cheris is a successful captain who is currently in disgrace for being a little too willing to use heretical battle formations in the service of winning. She has been called on to attack and overcome the completely impregnable Fortress of Scattered Needles, currently in the hands of heretics. She can’t do it alone, but the help they give her may be no help at all: General Shuos Jedao, a mercilessly competent strategist who has been dead for 400 years and whose last act was to slaughter not only the opposing army but his own as well. His spirit inhabits her, sleeplessly giving her advice and counsel. Is he still a madman? Was he ever? Is this a truly long game, and if so, what’s the objective? How can she trust a thing he says, and how can she not? Can either of them trust the hexarchate?
This book is, as it turns out, about the horror of war. It turns over various aspects of this idea: the pain of being in the infantry and relying on orders from above. The way you never get used to sacrificing soldiers you care about. The exhaustion of battle. The necessity of understanding your soldiers as real people, sentient beings with a commitment to make to the cause, not just cannon fodder. The obligation to question orders even when you’ve been trained not to. The vileness of rape in the chain of command, even when it looks consensual. The difficulty of understanding manipulation and betrayal in the higher command, and how crucial it is to try.
And it does all of this in a highly original context, where, as I said, different aspects of the society keep peeking out and showing themselves and developing where you didn’t expect them. There is so much here, tightly-plotted and densely-written, that it took me a long time to read it and understand it. But once I got into it, it was incredibly engaging. Watching these people be so good at what they do was fantastically interesting, and I cared about them so much, and wanted to know so badly what they had up their (sometimes ghostly) sleeves. By the end, I didn’t want to put it down, and I wanted to talk about it with someone. Anyone!
I read this book, of course, because Other Jenny told me to, and I am so glad I did. Should I read the sequel?