Raven Stratagem is the second in Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Machineries of Empire” series. The first, Ninefox Gambit, was a really well done character piece, with some beautifully tense moments in an inventively imagined universe – so I was quite excited to get my hands on the sequel.
The universe will be very familiar to readers of the first book in the sequence. An interstellar polity rules what appears to be a fairly large segment of humanity. Government is shared across seven factions, including the militarised Kel and the terminally sneaky Shuos. Each of the groups fulfils a role within their society, having been engineered, to one extent or another, to fill their niche. The Shuos, for example, have a tendency to think several moves ahead, and indeed to play several games at once – whilst also having a tendency to promotion-by-assasination. The Kel, by contrast, are utterly loyal to their commanding officer, whoever that might be – and governed by a hive-mind of senior generals. This is a government which systematically oppresses its people; in fact, the existence of the polity depends upon it. This is a universe which holds exotic technologies, which seemingly defy the laws of physics – ghost terrain, cast around astral fortresses, or faster-than-light drives. Quite what some of these esoteric technologies do is difficult to say – indeed may be impossibe to describe within our vernacular. But this is a calendrical government – the technologies work because the populace keeps to a particular calendar, and there are regular rituals and observances embedded in that calendar to make sure the exotic tech keeps working. Unfortunately, these tend to involve the torture, murder or outright genocide of citizens within the polity. This is an empire which thrives on misery – and would be unable to exist without it.
This polity struggles, not only internally, but with external foes as well. There’s other coalitions out there which make one with institutionalised calendrical torture look positively benign. If we don’t empathise with the society that Lee shows us, we can certainly see the pressures that shape it, in the unknown and unknowable craft which can sweep in from borders and devour worlds. This is a society on a war footing, and on a knife edge.
Into this whirling maelstrom steps Shuos Jedao. He featured heavily in the first book, and is back again as one of the protagonists for the sequel. Jedao is saturnine, charming, and obviously ferociously intelligent. He is also rather dead. Fortunately, as a result of events in the last book, he has a body to roam around in – or perhaps less fortunately, depending on how you look at it. The Shuos are typically several moves ahead of everyone else, with their penchant for intrigue and politicking. Jedao is talented, even for a Shuos, and has something of a military mind as well. Jedao scintillates on the page, and even if you don’t know what he’s doing, or exactly why, the force of personality is likely to keep you turning pages. Jedao is something of an inscrutable snake for those around him – talented, amiable, perhaps the best hope for defeating an incursion from another government – but also dangerous, irreverent, and known for a psychotic break which ended with everyone around him dead. Where all of these parts meet is a complex character, occluded from both the reader and the external audience. Perhaps even Jedao doesn’t know who he is. But the hints we get, the visible edges in the narrative, make for a fascinating read.
Jedao is the centrepiece of the narrative, I think – but ably backed by others. There’s Genera; Khiruev, for example. A Kel, she is fiercely loyal to her commanding officer – indeed, is genetically incapable of being otherwise. She’s also clearly an intelligent woman, able to read signs and portents, to decide what she wants from the situations in which she finds herself – and decide fi she’s willing to pay the price. Khiruev, with her own fierce sense of ethics and fiery cleverness, is an excellent foil to Jedao; more brusque, but feeling at least as real.
There’s others here as well – the leaders of the Empire make an appearance, as do some entities from outside of the Empire. There’s enforcers of doctrine, and Kel deciding where to strike, and where to abandon. There’s a sense here of an Empire, of a thriving, bustling society, even where I is caught up in atrocities. The people within it are similar – constrained by their systems, but recognisable as human, even beneath their layers of cultural and social change. This is an imaginative piece, and one where every facet has been polished beautifully to keep the reader engaged.
The plot – well, no spoilers, as ever. But lets say that whatever Jedao is planning it’s likely to be big. There’s grand space battles here, wrapped in the obfuscated language of the calendar, the exotic weaponry made even more so with its less than explicit uses. But the struggle is no less affecting for that. There’s political manoeuvring at the heart of the Empire, and some genuinely crackling dialogue. There’s personal instants, characters bearing their souls in genuinely moving moments. With the Empire on a knife edge, Jedao is willing to give it a shove, one way or the other – and it makes for an absolutely cracking read.
If you’ve not read the first in the series, I’d suggest going back and starting there. If you’ve been waiting on this sequel though – it’s definitely one to pick up.