Review: Raven Stratagem

Raven Stratagem is the second novel in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, set in a Korean-influenced far-future space dystopia which brutally enforces a consensus calendar that’s powered by the ritual torture of those who don’t observe it. Observance of the calendar in turn gives the dictatorial government (called the hexarchate after its six family leaders) access to maths-based technologies including weapons that bend time and space.

It makes a little more sense in context, and much more sense after you’ve read the first novel, Ninefox Gambit. Raven Stratagem is a walk in the park in comparison.

In this second book, Shuos Jedao, the undead mass murderer/brilliant general resurrected by the authorities in Ninefox Gambit, takes over a spacefleet that was meant to be protecting the hexarchate from an invading alien force. Or is it Kel Cheris, the infantry captain whose body Jedao was resurrected into, who’s in charge here?

This inscrutability is key to what the novel (and trilogy) is trying to do: we never get a window into what the book’s central character is thinking. Jedao is an anomaly: the hexarchate works on the physical bodies of its subjects (through ritual torture of those who don’t conform), and he has no physical body; his military rank is dubious (Undead Disgraced Former General is a…niche position, let’s say) in an organisation that sets great store by rank; he has no family or friends left for the hexarchate to threaten. His ghost-in-the-machine status, coupled with his tactical genius, has given him a lot of freedom and power to resist the hexarchate. But we have no access to his thoughts; instead, we hear from those who are, unlike Jedao, inextricably part of the system. People like General Khiruev, commander of the swarm Jedao has taken over; like Kel Brezan, a soldier bent on stopping Jedao; like Nija, a member of the ethnic minority Cheris belongs to, a culture being exterminated to bring Jedao (or Cheris herself) back into line. We hear from a couple of hexarchs, too, as they try to figure out what to do about Jedao, and also what they want for the hexarchate as a whole.

The effect is similar to what Ninefox Gambit was doing in offering up short vignettes from the point of view of people who were about to die: it establishes the human cost of coups like the one Jedao is staging – making it clear that the hexarchate is dystopian precisely because it exacts those costs.

In her mini-review of Raven Stratagem, Abigail Nussbaum writes that

“The absence of those who are complicit in the system, or indifferent to it, feels particularly unpersuasive.”

Which got me thinking about the purpose of this novel, and what having characters who are complicit in or indifferent to the system would look like. Firstly: we hear both from the man who created the system for his own ends and from a hexarch who apparently sees the system as a necessary evil (although he disagrees with some of its more gratuitous cruelties for management and morale reasons), so there is complicity here. But, to address Nussbaum’s wider point, which I think is more about the fact that so many of the novel’s viewpoint characters find narratively convenient reasons to avoid making morally compromising decisions (we can empathise with the previously-mentioned management-focused hexarch precisely because he doesn’t make a point of torturing or assassinating where he doesn’t need to): I’m not sure that having characters who think the hexarchate is fine and good would make this novel any better. My feeling about Raven Stratagem (one doubtlessly informed by my own biases!) is that it’s a book for a liberal audience in a world that’s heading to dystopia; one we already know is full of awful and/or simply indifferent people. And it’s one that, despite all the atrocities the hexarchate perpetuates, offers realistic hope for those living with dystopia. That is, this is a trilogy about the work of resistance (and eventually reform), the meetings and the politics and the alliances. It’s shitty and hard and the costs are unbearably high, but it can be done. These are desperate characters resisting the apathy of despair.

Another reason for hope: I’d forgotten since reading Ninefox Gambit just how queer-friendly these novels are. Almost every character is gay or bi, and that’s completely normal. (Reproductive technology seems to be an enabler of queer-friendly culture, too: most children in this society don’t have natural births, so parenthood is an option for couples/groups of any gender combination.) Polyamorous and multi-generational families also seem to be the norm, and people enter marriage contracts for specific lengths of time. A key character, Brezan, is trans – and although being trans is normal enough that everybody recognises it as A Thing, it’s also A Thing in negative ways too (though never I think in ways that affect his career).

If it wasn’t already clear, I am the liberal audience for this book, and I enjoyed it a lot. I really hope its sequel Revenant Gun wins a Hugo on Saturday: as a series, it’s doing some really interesting worldbuilding, and has a lot to say in and to our current political climate in the West.

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