Raven Stratagem (Machineries of Empire, #2)
by Yoon Ha Lee
Review by Sam Lubell
Solaris Kindle Edition ISBN/ITEM#: B06XNX2H6Z
Date: 13 June 2017 List Price $5.38 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Raven Stratagem is the sequel to the Hugo-finalist Ninefox Gambit. Most of the book reads as if written for readers who thought the first book had too much character identity confusion getting in the way of an exciting space adventure. And then, in a surprise, Lee reveals that what is truly going on is not what the reader thinks.
The book opens with General Kel Khiruev's space swarm about to attack the Hafn but is ordered to wait for the arrival of Captain Kel Cheris. When Cheris arrives she is wearing the uniform of the General Shuos Jedao (who has survived centuries by being decanted into others' bodies by Kel Command). Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan soon realizes this is Jedao who has completely taken over Cheris' body (depriving this book of much of the interesting internal conflict that drove Ninefox Gambit). Because of an implanted formation instinct, that makes Kels automatically obey their superiors, everyone, including General Khiruev, immediately follow Jedao's orders.
However, Lt Colonel Kel Brezan has weak formation instinct, so he refuses to serve Jadao. As a result, the Kels label him a crashhawk and Jedao expels him from the swarm along with all other non-Kel. For much of the rest of the book, Brezan has his own plotline of trying to get a message through the bureaucracy to Kel Command that Jedao has hijacked one of their swarms.
Meanwhile, Khiruev fights her own formation instinct to try to assassinate Jedao by cobbling together a mechanical drone. But after Jedao does not punish her when the attempt fails, killing two Kel, she becomes truly loyal to the General. Meanwhile, Jedao insists all he wants to do is fight the Hafn. However, it is clear that he has his own plans that go well beyond battle.
Raven Stratagem has much less information on the calendar heresies within hexarchate society. But there are many scenes with the hexarchs, the rulers of the hexarchate.
Characterization is strong, except for Jedao. We see some of Jedao's past, but only through third parties. There is substantial information about Khiruev, Brezan, and Hexarch Shuos Mikodez however. Still, the reader cannot help but miss Cheris, who was the main character in the first book.
Raven Stratagem's ending seems a bit rushed, considering how much space the book devotes to severeal minor issues earlier. The book's twist does explain why the book is written this particular way, even if many readers figure out the surprise. Still, one has to wonder if hiding the most interesting aspects of a book, for the sake of surprising the reader, isn't a self-defeating tactic.
A common failing of second novels in trilogies is that they cannot resolve the main problem or else there'd be no third book. Usually, this means the author has the characters fail at an attempt at solving the problem or else gives the characters a side quest as a delaying tactic. Not here. This book has the sort of status quo changing upset normally reserved for the end of a trilogy. This makes me wonder what Lee has in store for the next book.
The ending did cause me to reevaluate my opinion of the book. Readers who think Raven Stratagem is a disappointing follow-up to the first book, in its focus on military and political strategy rather than internal struggles, will do well to stick around for the ending. It will change how you see things.