Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem
Yoon Ha Lee
Solaris, 400 pages
Review by Iain Maloney

Criticism is a funny old thing. The critic is late to the party: the book is published, printed, often already in shops and on people’s nightstands by the time the review comes out so any criticism offered is at best parenthetical. As a novelist myself I’ve read critical reviews of my books and thought, ‘Okay, so the reviewer thinks W doesn’t work, X should’ve done Y and Z should’ve been longer. What do they think I can do about it now?’ While some writers occasionally get the chance to go back and re-edit older works, the best an author can usually do is to take relevant criticism on board and keep it in mind for the next novel.

This dichotomy was at the front of my mind while reading Raven Stratagem, the second part of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, which began with Ninefox Gambit. I am a big fan of Lee’s writing and thoroughly enjoyed Ninefox Gambit, but I never felt quite satisfied. My main beef was the complexity. Lee has created a deeply complex universe, one that in the most fundamental ways is completely alien to us. Not quite parallel, more parabolic. It reminds me, in a good way, of Iain M Banks’s Culture in its scope, its pleasing disfunction and the humorous uses Lee makes of the technological and social quirks that rise emergent from the system. But for a lot of Ninefox Gambit, it wasn’t particularly clear what was going on beyond the immediate action.

Lee, much to his credit, never info-dumps and never engages in a Telladonna (to steal a phrase from the West Wing Weekly podcast) by having one character explain everything to another. The book would’ve been immensely weakened by either of those techniques, and a writer should never give more information than is strictly necessarily, but I couldn’t help coming out of Ninefox Gambit feeling a little lost. The critic in me wanted Lee to slow down, to let his creation breathe.

Raven Stratagem, in this sense, is a huge leap forward.

In the first book 400-year-old mass murderer Shuos Jedao was grafted onto the mind of Kel Cheris, creating a deadly duo easily capable of defeating the heretics at the Fortress of Scattered Needles. Raven Stratagem picks things up almost immediately. Cheris’s mind is dead and Jedao has hijacked her body, using it to take control of a Kel ship in which he goes haring across the galaxy repelling Hafn invaders and antagonising the ruling Hexarchate, all the while clearly up to something. Jedao is a wonderful fictional creation, a total psychotic bastard you can’t help but root for. The sense of pleasure Lee clearly takes in writing about Jedao’s villainy again puts me in mind of Iain M Banks. If you like your universes with a dark sense of humour and a wonky moral compass, Lee may be the best thing to happen to Space Opera since Banks’s untimely passing.

The novel opens the Hexarchate out, following multiple strands that expand and delineate our understanding while complicating the plot and adding levels that will undoubtedly be explored in later volumes. (Lee’s website says ‘trilogy’ – I hope it’s a trilogy in the Douglas Adams sense of the word).

Raven Stratagem is that rare thing – a sequel that betters the original – and is also the most frustrating thing for a reviewer: a book with a plot that cannot be discussed without massive spoilers. But like all great novels, it starts at the end of things. The ruling order that has controlled the galaxy for centuries is on its way out, and something is going to replace it. It could be freedom. It could be chaos. It could be a disaster. From Shoreline of Infinity’s base in Scotland, we ask what could be more timely? 

First published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 8.