War Never Ends: Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee’s debut, Ninefox Gambit, made history last year when it joined a small handful of novels to earn prestigious nominations for the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. Ann Leckie’s tour-de-force, Ancillary Justice, did the same in 2014, winning all three awards, which puts Lee’s accomplishment into perspective. (And that’s not the only similarity between the trilogies, but we’ll get to that later.) Lee was already well known for his terrific short fiction, including his 2013 collection, Conservation of Shadows, but Ninefox Gambit put him on the map in a big way. Fitting nicely into the vacuum left by Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, which concluded with Ancillary Mercy in 2015, Ninefox Gambit was a skilled mix of “military SF with blood, guts, math, and heart.”

Ninefox Gambit is a book everyone seems to love, yet it’s also dense at times, and difficult to get into. In my review, I complained about the novel’s early chapters, which I struggled to get through, let alone enjoy. “I found the world confusing, the action gruesome,” I said, “and the pace difficult to keep up with. I could recognize that novel’s quality, and the originality that Lee is known for, but other books beckoned, and there was an easy, lazy whisper at the back of my head.” But I did push on, and was rewarded by one of 2016’s richest novels. The complexity of Lee’s story, both from a worldbuilding and plotting perspective, rivals rocket science, but the intricacy of the relationship between the novel’s two central characters—Kel Cheris, a soldier and genius mathematician, and Shuos Jedao, a psychotic undead general—was masterful.

Its sequel, Raven Stratagem, arrives with a lot of hype, but that also brings baggage. After Ninefox Gambit, could Lee repeat his success? Thankfully, Raven Stratagem not only meets the expectations set by its prequel, but, in many ways, exceeds them, and is a more well-rounded novel.

Unlike its predecessor, Raven Stratagem requires no warming up period. Very little of the narrative in Raven Stratagem is bogged-down by incomprehensible infodumps about “calendrical rot.” In comparison, it feels open and airy. Through Cheris and Jedao, Lee proved his ability to create complex and interesting characters, and this time around he throws the doors open by introducing several new point-of-view characters, all of whom are engaging in their own way. From the crashhawk Brezan, who’s on a mission to take Jedao down, to General Kel Khiruev, who is reluctantly beholden to the undead general after he commandeers her swarm, to Shuos Mikodez, leader of a faction of assassins, each of the major players has their own well-defined and compelling part to play in Raven Stratagem‘s overall narrative. They’re all damaged and dangerous, full of regrets, but they are also vulnerable and likeable in a way that allows readers to connect with them on the right emotional level.

Most surprising, perhaps, is being afforded a peek into the mind of Mikodez, who is full of witticisms:

“Very flattering,” Mikodez said demurely, “but while Jedao has demonstrated that his solution to a man with a gun is to shoot it out of his hand—the kind of idiot stunt I tell my operatives to avoid attempting—my solution is not to be in the same damn room to begin with.”

Amidst all the complex worldbuilding, blood, and guts, one of Ninefox Gambit’s most surprising assets was its sense of humour. It’s even more prevalent in Raven Stratagem. Lee knows just when to diffuse a situation with a dark joke, but he also uses humour as a window into the personalities of his characters. It’s not so much belly laughs, but sly side-eye smirks.

Brezan functioned indifferently as part of a composite, one of the reasons he had expected to land at a boring desk dirtside instead of here, but he conceded that that sense of utter humming conviction, of belonging, was addictive. At least things weren’t likely to get worse.

As it turned out, things were about to get worse.

He can make you laugh, but, god damn, he can also make you cry.

Mother Ekesra let go. The corpse-paper remnant of her husband drifted to the floor with a horrible crackling nose. But she wasn’t done; she believed in neatness. She knelt to pick up the sheet and began folding it. It was also one of the few arts that the Andan faction, who otherwise prided themselves on their dominance of the hexarchate’s culture, disdained.

When Mother Ekesra was done folding the two entangled swans—remarkable work, worth of admiration if you didn’t realize who it had once been—she put the horrible thing down, went into Mother Allu’s arms, and began to cry in earnest.

Lee is able to tap into humanity’s full spectrum, pulling out its most heart-wrenching sadness, its most wicked humour, its most sadistic greed. The way he juggles these facets of humanity, portraying them in the least expected places, from the mouths or actions of the least expected people, is one of the reasons I fall so deeply in love with his novels, despite so many other elements being anathema to what I normally enjoy reading. He is writing stories that no one else is writing, that no one else could write.

Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem are queer-friendly, and very liberal in the handling of their characters gender and sexuality. Lee is never on the nose about it, but, for instance, characters will refer to other people by a gender-neutral pronoun if they do not know that person’s gender with certainty. This is just how it is in Lee’s vision of far-future humanity. Characters range from asexual, to bisexual, to straight, but there is never a big deal made about this. Consider this conversation between Mikodez and Jedao (who is “anchored” to a woman’s body at the time):

“At some point when you’re done walloping the Hafn, you ought to take some time off and try sex with someone who isn’t a Kel. I hear some people find it fulfilling.” Istradez always laughed whenever he heard Mikodez giving this particular advice. But Jedao’s discomfited expression made the whole conversation worth it. “Unless you have some archaic problem with being a womanform?”

“Shuhos-sho,” Jedao said patiently, “I haven’t had a dick in four hundred years. I got over it fast, promise.”

Sex is important to some characters’ plots, completely irrelevant to others’. It’s as mature, forward-thinking, and delicate a handling of gender and sexuality as I’ve seen in science fiction, and other writers would do well to study how Lee accomplishes it so effortlessly.

Even as Lee’s worldbuilding becomes less complicated, the scope of the story continues to expand in Raven Stratagem. War is looming, big battles are fought, Jedao’s strategic brilliance is on display. But, while this is happening, many of the novel’s most interesting conflicts are tight and personal, especially those that explore Jedao’s lost humanity, his myriad contradictions, and his murky morals.

“Shuos-zho,” Jedao said, in a voice so pleasant it was poisonous, “it’s no secret that I’m one of the hexarchate’s greatest monsters, but I draw the line at rape.

“That’s fucking hilarious considering whose body you’re walking around in,” Mikodez observed.

Jedao’s face was recovering some of its colour. “Kel Cheris had already died,” he said. “I didn’t see any harm in wringing some final use out of her carcass. The dead aren’t around to care.”

“You’re one of us, all right.”

“Tell me,” Mikodez said in exasperation, “what the hell would you do if there wasn’t a war on?”

Jedao faltered. For a moment, his eyes were wrenchingly young. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know how to do anything else.”

Which meant, although there was no way that Jedao was ready to admit it to himself, that he’d start a war just to have something to do.”

Like Leckie, Lee is most interested in examining the way people act during times of war, in exposing the depths of humanity and revealing it on the table for all to see. Raven Stratagem—like Ninefox Gambit before it, and Leckie’s Ancillary Justice—is full of mind-melting SFnal ideas, a humanity among the stars that is at once familiar and nearly alien, but never forgets what makes us tick.

Raven Stratagem certainly shows symptoms of Middle Book Syndrome—with the bulk of the novel made of of political maneuvering required to set up the following novel—and some readers might find its shift from Ninefox Gambit’s more frenetic and action-packed plot to something slower and more philosophical a tad disappointing. It worked for me, however, and I thought that Lee found a nice sense of balance between big SF and personal conflict, which was rather precarious during Ninefox Gambit. As any good sequel does, Raven Stratagem doubles down on what made Ninefox Gambit so great, and polishes away its imperfections.

Without a doubt, Raven Stratagem is proof that Yoon Ha Lee sits next to Ann Leckie atop the podium for thoughtful, intricate, and complexly human science fiction.

Raven Stratagem is available from Solaris.
Read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com.

Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink, author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories and “The Penelope Qingdom”, and regular contributor to Tor.com and the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog. Aidan lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter, but you can most easily find him on Twitter @adribbleofink.

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