My review of Ninefox Gambit was, in many respects, a response to critiques I had read about it in addition to a review of the book itself. I promise this look at Raven Stratagem will be more focused—having dispensed with defending Yoon Ha Lee’s calendrical worldbuilding, I can dive right into this actual book and its characters.
I’m going to discuss spoilers for this book (and the last one)!
At the end of Ninefox Gambit, Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao barely escaped with their lives. Indeed, Jedao didn’t really survive—but no one knows that. So when Cheris shows up in the Kel swarm sent to deal with invaders, everyone naturally assumes she is still possessed by the spirit of Jedao. The Kel formation instinct forces the swarm to defer to General Jedao, and soon enough it’s off fighting the Hafn. Back in the hexarchate proper, the hexarchs—in particular, Hexarch Shuos Mikodez—ponder what to do about a rogue Kel/Shuos operative in charge of battleships.
The most obvious departure in this book from the first one is the perspective shift. Whereas Ninefox Gambit follows Kel Cheris’ limited third-person perspective almost exclusively, Raven Stratagem removes us from Cheris. She is still an important character, but instead we follow Khiruev, Brezan, and Mikodez. This allows Lee to manipulate the reader by making Cheris/Jedao’s identity ambiguous (I read Ninefox Gambit barely 4 months ago and yet I had already forgotten the ending, so the revelation that Jedao really was dead this whole time was like a memory jog). More importantly, it grounds us in a very different perspective of the hexarchate and its factions.
Khiruev provides far more insight into the nature of Kel-dom than Cheris, as a crashhawk, ever could. The way that she is forced to obey “General Jedao” because of formation instinct, even though this runs counter to what the Kel would actually want her to do, illustrates the convoluted and very twisted mechanics at work here. With Khiruev, Lee plumbs the depths of what it means to compel loyalty in one’s soldiers, and why that might not be a great idea.
Brezan, in contrast, is an example of what happens when that compelled loyalty malfunctions. Another crashhawk, able to disobey formation instinct even though he wants to serve the Kel, Brezan puts himself in the hands of Kel Command and demands to be made into a tool. Even so, he can’t help but be disobey at the critical juncture—that pesky independent thought ruining your perfect obedience!
Mikodez is a delicious character. He is ruthlessly pragmatic, as we see time and again from his dealings with his subordinates and his brother. Yet he is not a mean person. The way he attempts to negotiate with Jedao, and his ultimate support for Cheris’ calendrical spike, demonstrates how his pragmatism ultimately comes from a desire for stability that the hexarchate, despite its longevity, can never achieve. Mikodez recognizes what the other hexarchs can’t (or don’t want to) admit: uprisings and heresies will always be a part of the hexarchate as it is currently configured, because humans can only bear so much torture and ritual before enough of them band together.
This book is just as interesting as Ninefox Gambit but in perhaps entirely different ways. Raven Stratagem, despite the similar name, is more about relationships than it is about strategies and tactics. Cheris isn’t really trying to win an armed conflict here. Rather, this book asks us to consider how our relationships with people affect the decisions we make and in what we place our trust. Cheris’ ability to accomplish the calendrical spike depends on people like Khiruev, Brezan, and even Mikodez falling into line.
This is a book about swinging big. Cheris is attempting to start a revolution in the most efficient way possible, by basically declaring open war on the hexarchate’s entire belief system. This is a huge deal, and no doubt the repercussions will be felt in the third book. But what really interests me is how characters like Brezan or Mikodez react once they understand what Cheris is up to. Whether it’s to recoil in disgust (at least initially) or scratch one’s chin and ponder the implications, these characters all understand that Cheris is not an idealist and that she is deadly serious about what she intends to do.
I don’t think this book will change anyone’s opinion about the Machineries of Empire series. If you thought Ninefox Gambit was too weird and abstruse, then Raven Stratagem will not be any different. I get that. Still, these books keep poking my brain in interesting ways, and I appreciate that. Why the downgrade from 5 stars to 3 over the course of this sequel? Honestly, it’s just because I didn’t feel like Raven Stratagem goes far enough in opening up the vista of this universe for us. This is a good book but only an ok sequel.