Here we are with the last Machineries of Empire book and possibly my favourite, even though I’m giving it a lower rating than Ninefox Gambit (go figure). I think I’m so well-disposed towards Revenant Gun because of Yoon Ha Lee’s dedication to wrapping up the story. Finishing a trilogy satisfactorily is no mean feat, especially when you’ve created a universe as intricate and far-flung as Lee’s.
We pick up nine years after Raven Stratagem, although some chapters are flashbacks set shortly after that book. The Nirai hexarch, Kujen, has resurrected Shuos Jedao—or bits of him, at least—in a new and “improved” body and given him command of what is left of the Hexarchate’s Kel forces. Meanwhile, Brezan leads the rebels, and Cheris/Jedao is missing—she has a plan of her own. As war flares up over and over, it starts to look like Jedao vs Jedao might be the only way to end things—but what will the price be for humanity?
It’s so interesting, all these viewpoint characters, and the sympathies that they create. New Jedao (as I will call him) is unsure of himself. He doesn’t trust Kujen (good), yet also has no idea how he could wrest more control over his own destiny. He also really has no purpose outside of being Kujen’s weapon. It’s fun watching him grow a conscience, of sorts.
Similarly, I enjoyed seeing more from the servitors’ perspectives. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the servitors are not a united front. They too have factions and allegiances, and it’s interesting to see how those overlap and intersect with the human powers. There is one servitor main character in particular whose allegiance shifts quite a bit over the course of the book, propelling them from a servant of one person to an autonomous being that sets its own goals.
Then we have Cheris Jedao, who is making it her mission to assassinate the immortal Kujen at all costs. Although we don’t get to spend much time in her head compared to the other characters, hers is the journey I most enjoyed in this book. The ending, in particular, feels very fitting.
All of the main characters are, in a way, trying to find themselves. In a galaxy where the old ways have quite literally been supplanted by a new regime, everyone is uncertain. Some people, like the Jedaos and even, to an extent, Brezan, have been robbed of their identities in one way or another. Lee asks us to consider who we are when we are torn away from our old support systems, our friends or family, and told we instead have a different purpose.
I also enjoyed the political commentary. As much as it might be difficult for some to wrap their heads around the calendrical mechanics that underlie this story’s worldbuilding, at the end of the day, this series is about revolution. It’s about fighting back against the idea that it’s OK to sacrifice some people in order to preserve an order for the rest. Yet it also acknowledges that if revolution erupts into war, tough choices might result in the people you think of as the “good guys” looking an awful lot like the bad guys at times.
If I have a criticism of this book or this series, it’s that I would have liked more time outside of the faction-controlled spaces. I would have liked to hear more about civilian life in the hexarchate, and to understand how the foreign nations (which I’m given to understand are also human) operate. I understand why Lee might have wanted to keep the story razor-focused on these characters, and it works quite well. Nevertheless, I feel like I’ve only been skimming the surface of this interesting universe. I want more! At the same time, I’m also satisfied with the ending of this story, and I’m not sure I need more, if that makes any sense.
The comparisons to Ann Leckie and doubtless others are obvious, and I would agree with them, but don’t let those make you lose sight of the inarguable fact that Lee’s voice rises original and refreshing in this genre. The careful integration of math and art and science, the aesthetic that I can’t quite label correctly yet feel reverberating throughout each page—this is a series crafted with care and skill and thoughtful attention to the storytelling. This is good science fiction indeed.