Earlier this year, I read Yoon Ha Lee’s novel Ninefox Gambit, on Other Jenny’s recommendation. I found it dense and difficult — Lee doesn’t exactly cosset his readers — but in the end, I found the combination of power, politics, and personality irresistible. The ethical problem of a centuries-old dead general (Shuos Jedao) possessing the body of a captain (Kel Cheris) injected with “formation instinct” that compels her to be loyal — let alone all the other problems of hierarchy, tyranny, strategy, determinism, and the reliable narrator — grabbed me.
So I read Raven Stratagem, which picks up where Ninefox Gambit left off. I was expecting this book to suffer from some Middle Book problems — perhaps to have more exposition about the Hexarchate, or about Jedao’s past, or anyway about something (Ninefox Gambit is very low on exposition.) But in fact, Lee opens the book up to a new array of characters so we can see the prickly, gruesome problem from new angles. There is Kel Brezan, a crashhawk (a Kel on whom formation instinct didn’t take) who’s on a mission to take Jedao down; Shuos Mikodez, the sardonically intelligent Hexarch of the Shuos, who has known Jedao longer than almost anyone else and may have guessed what he’s doing; and General Kel Khiruev, who is reluctantly in Jedao’s service after he commandeers her swarm (after all, being centuries old, he is the most senior of any imaginable officer.) We, like they, are asked to guess Jedao’s motives and strategies as he fights to subvert and destroy not only the enemy Hafn but the structure of his own empire’s government. We, like they, are asked to determine when personal choice is superfluous and when it is crucial.
Lee is so good at detail. I was simultaneously fascinated and chilled by descriptions of the Hafn drones (?) — ships that derive their energy from symbiotic relationships between sleeping children in caskets and birds or flowers or trees. In this book, we get a better sense of the different factions, and of the way the Hexarchate has dominated and tortured its people. And all the details go together; nothing is forgotten. Pieces of the story that began as personal quirks in Ninefox Gambit are central to the plot in Raven Stratagem. Does he keep spreadsheets? It’s kind of unbelievable.
This isn’t the sort of speculative fiction I usually read, and to be honest, I did still have trouble keeping track of what was happening in this one, though not to the same degree as with Ninefox Gambit. But it was just so good. I wanted to know more. I still do. I will definitely read the next one, whenever it comes out, and more, whenever he writes it.