LitStack Review: Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

by Sharon Browning

Raven Stratagem
(Machineries of Empire, Book 2)
Yoon Ha Lee
Release Date:  June 13, 2017
ISBN 978-1-78108-537-0

In 2016, Yoon Ha Lee’s debut novel, Ninefox Gambit, burst on the scene and established itself as the newest entry in the trend towards imaginative, complex, norm-bending science fiction (think Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, Kameron Hurley’s The Stars are Legion, Ian McDonald’s Luna series, or virtually anything by Kim Stanley Robinson).  In it, the future is driven by technology hinging on a strict use of a specific calendar, and much of the focus of the different factions jockeying for power is bent on squashing calendrical heresies – and internal scheming. It’s a true tour de force.

Now, in Book 2 of the Machineries of Empire series that was spawned from that first book, the specific focus of the initial offering has passed, and our vision spans out to a wider perspective – and it’s not a pretty sight.

Genius tactician (and genocidal madman) Jedao Shuos, having been released his undead status in the Black Cauldron, pulled off a decisive victory over the threatening heretics at the Fortress of Scattered Needles in tandem with Kel captain and mathematical savant Cheris, with whom he shared both a body and a consciousness. Now, with the apparent loss of Kel Cheris, Jedao has taken control of an entire Kel swarm, and while it appears that his focus is on turning back an incursion from hostile Hafn forces, the governing powers in the hexarchate believe that his intentions are not at all noble, instead masking some cunning ploy that may undermine all that their scheming and infighting have built. While paranoia is part and parcel of the hexarchate, some, including presiding Hexarch Shuos Mikodez, see not only threat, but opportunity.

Raven Strategem falls solidly in the category of middle installment of a trilogy – not as apparently brilliant as the originating offering and of necessity without a definite conclusion. Much of the book is spent cementing and expanding what has been established in the first volume, then building to answer some questions while posing others that beg to be answered in the concluding novel.  While it exceeds in accomplishing these goals, much of the book does feel like a bridge rather than a journey. Gone are the wonderful little vignettes of Ninefox Gambit that gave crucial insight into an environment far outside of that of the main players, and keenly felt is the  lack of the delicate outsider insight that Cheris lent to this very foreign universe. And it stumbles in a few cases, such a scene between Mikodez and his brother (who acts as his double) that I felt was tiptoeing on the gratuitous, which was especially jarring in such a sharply written work.

Having said that, as with Ninefox Gambit, all the perceived latency falls by the wayside in the final quarter of the book, and what does develop is well worth the wait. While I can’t give much away as to the plot of Raven Stratagem, rest assured that it remains a wonderfully realized, genuinely involving, and unique read; one that ultimately satisfies and yes, leaves the reader hungry to find out what is going to happen next.

~ Sharon Browning

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