Raven Stratagem

by Yoon Ha Lee

Cover image

Series: Machineries of Empire #2
Publisher: Solaris
Copyright: 2017
ISBN: 1-78618-046-4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 400

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Raven Stratagem is the sequel to Ninefox Gambit and will make very little sense if you've not read the previous book. In fact, I'll add a rare warning, one that I wish I'd had and followed: you need to be deeply familiar with the details of the end of Ninefox Gambit or large chunks of this book will make no sense. I read the previous book earlier this year, but my memory of some of the specifics of the ending had slipped, and I ended up having to skim the ending of the previous book several times. Consider re-reading that bit before starting this book if you share my lack of memory for plot specifics and it's been more than a few months.

I unfortunately can't provide a plot summary, since there's almost nothing I can say about the plot that doesn't spoil Ninefox Gambit. It is basically the story that you would expect from the very end of Ninefox Gambit, though, although the way it's carried out is not quite as dramatic as I was expecting.

I wanted to like this book a great deal. Ninefox Gambit introduced a beautiful magitech system, but it was otherwise mostly setup and one extended battle. Its ending promised engagement with larger universe politics, and prospects of doing something about the deep unfairness of the current political system. I was hoping this book would contain the payoff of that escalation. It does deliver on that payoff, but something about it didn't quite work for me.

The best description I've been able to come up with is that Raven Stratagem skitters. Some of this is an increase in the number of viewpoint characters, which made it harder for me to get into a reading rhythm with any of them. But most of it, I think, is that the characters have so many layers of deception, emotional shielding, weariness, and resignation that it's hard to find the true emotional beats of the story except in retrospect. I kept bouncing off surfaces, so many different and conflicting surfaces. This book is full of people who are not being honest with each other, or sometimes with themselves, and who are pretending to motives they don't really have. As a reader, I wanted to be placed in a privileged position where I could experience the character emotions even when they were lying about them. For good or ill, Raven Stratagem doesn't do that.

There was also something about the dramatic structure of the story that didn't work for me. When describing the book to a friend, I said that the main plot climax was off-camera. In skimming the book again for this review, I found that wasn't the case, but it still felt that way. I think that's because, despite some event build-up, the emotional build-up wasn't in place for me, so I wasn't ready as a reader for the climax when it came. The build-up to the climax is partly sacrificed to keep the secrecy of a couple of long-awaited revelations. I very much enjoyed those revelations (one satisfying one was set up with Cheris's behavior at the start of Ninefox Gambit), but I wanted the catharsis of the climax as well. As written, the strongest emotional hit was from a somewhat ancillary climax, and that involved characters who mattered considerably less to me than Cheris.

The climax also involves quite a lot of hand-waving. While some of that is expected in magitech, I would have liked to understand the mechanisms of what happened, not just the effects.

Lee introduces several new viewpoint characters here, including two very contrasting Kel. I warmed to them by the end of the book, but I liked Cheris as a viewpoint character considerably better than either of them. Both of them spend most of this book in conditions of varying powerlessness; Cheris, despite difficult circumstances, was at least driving the plot. I can kind of see why Lee picked the viewpoint characters he did, but I still feel grumbly about it. I would have loved to have a servitor as a primary viewpoint character in this story.

All that said, I'm still glad I read this book. The climax is satisfying, as is the growing respect of the characters and the growing realization of just how the universe is being changed. I wanted more of that on camera rather than being held for dramatic surprise, but I still savored it when it happened. The mechanisms of the Hexarchate, particularly formation instinct, are considerably creepier than Ninefox Gambit reveals, which is saying something, and yet oddly logical in their own magitech way. I liked all the pieces; I just wanted them to have more emotional oomph and momentum. Instead, I felt like I was bringing my own emotion to the story rather than letting the story sweep me away, which meant being more analytical and less engrossed than I prefer to be in a novel.

I'm still going to read the third book, though. By the end of Raven Stratagem, Lee has set most of the scenery on fire, and I want to see what sort of world rises from the flames.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-10-23

Last modified and spun 2017-10-24