Book Review: Raven Stratagem
Ye gods, guys. I just want to give Yoon Ha Lee a huge hug and thank him profusely for writing this series, because it is one of the best damn things I've read in recent years.
A short window of time has passed since the end of Ninefox Gambit. Shuos Jedao shows up in a Kel fleet fighting the Hafn, wearing Kel Cheris's body, and seizes control of the swarm through formation instinct. An assortment of characters move to stop him, including Brezan, a Kel crashhawk from the captured swarm, jettisoned by Jedao and promoted to general by Kel Command, and several of the hexarchs, including a tentative Shuos Mikodez. Despite this, Jedao maintains control of the swarm with the help of General Kel Khiruev. But Jedao's motives and goals are unclear, and the hexarchate hangs in the balance.
One of the loveliest things Raven Stratagem does? It leaves you guessing just how much of Kel Cheris, if any, survived the events at the end of Ninefox Gambit. There are plenty of clues along the way for you to piece it together (I did), but it's fascinating to watch the other characters react to the same puzzle. I say "other characters" because Jedao is not a viewpoint character. Instead, we see him solely from the perspective of those around him, mainly three POVs: Mikodez (familiar from Ninefox) and two new characters, Brezan and Khiruev.
This gives the book a very different feel from Ninefox, which had such a tight, honed focus on the relationship between Cheris and Jedao. It's more spread-out, encompassing larger portions of the hexarchate and more conflicting plots and motives. But that's in no way a bad thing - it's a refreshing change that lends the book a different flavor within the same world.
Speaking of which, we get an even deeper dive into the craziness of the hexarch here. It loses some of the confusing magic of Ninefox (because if you made it through Ninefox, you know a certain minimum about the world and can't be as entirely confused as you once were), but here we see a Rahal scrying for the first time. We see Vidona deathtouch. We witness how the hexarchs maneuver around each other, how inherently unstable the hexarchate truly is. All of that paints an important backdrop for the events of the book.
So let's cycle back to those characters. Mikodez is by far my favorite. He has a certain wry humor about him, like your favorite uncle except far more paranoid and deadly. He was criminally underused in Ninefox (even though I understand why); thankfully, that's remedied here. In my opinion, he gets the best passages of the book, which do a superb job of establishing the layers of motive and strategy he works in.
But Brezen and Khiruev are both fascinating in their own rights. Brezen is a crashhawk, someone for whom formation instinct didn't take. It's anathema to Kel, and Brezen is sure he'll be executed when he's found out. Instead, we get to watch him come to terms with being promoted and sent to be the heroic rescuer of Jedao's stolen swarm, something he never expected, doesn't believe he deserves, and isn't sure he wants. (It's also worth noting in here, with both Mikodez, Mikodez's brother Istradez, and Brezen, how much I enjoy Lee's portrayal of sex and gender - he takes a very fluid yet upfront approach that feels real and nuanced.)
Khiruev, on the other hand, is a tragic figure for most of the book. When Jedao seizes the swarm, she fights through her formation instinct to make an attempt on his life - a fascinating and very memorable chapter for its description of her struggle against herself. After that, she falls under Jedao's spell and aids him of her own volition, even when it hurts her.
And all of them circle Jedao and those essential questions: is Cheris still in there, and what does he want?
I'm deliberately avoiding talking about the plot, because so much of it hinges on those questions, and I don't want to spoil. I will say that the swarm Jedao leads is fighting the Hafn, the outside enemy from Ninefox, and the Hafn have their own calendar and insanely disturbing technology (with another nightmarish scene). If you liked the math-based space battles of Ninefox, you won't be disappointed here. Interspersed with those, we get the same little touches of charged emotion that I loved in Ninefox. Again, no spoilers, but my heartstrings were definitely tugged a few times.
At the end of the day, is it better than Ninefox? Probably not. But I'm comfortable saying that I loved it just as much - and I gave Ninefox five stars.
Lee, you sly devil, you. I can't wait for your next one - and I hope you win that Hugo next month.