Review: Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem is the second book in Yoon Ha Lee’s excellent “Machineries of Empire” series.  The first book, Ninefox Gambit, was nominated for the Hugo last year, and I put it at the top of my ballot.  I admired Lee’s inventive science-fiction mechanics – the “exotic effects” enabled by the particular configuration of the local calendar, as well as by the positional formation of troops in battle – as well as the use of game design and its pedagogical capabilities as a plot point, and the sympathetic protagonist and her mathematical genius…

The first book did a lot of worldbuilding, about not only the mathematically-driven nature of the world but also the political intrigue proceeding in the background; the second book takes all that setup and runs with it.  Ninefox Gambit‘s core theme of the hard choices made in war is carried through, of course, but Raven Stratagem dares to contemplate the possibility of another way – if not peace, then at least a world in which war isn’t quite so terrible.

Raven Stratagem also expands the core cast of characters beyond Kel Cheris, the protagonist of the first book, and Shuos Jedao, the brilliant yet insane ghost that had been attached to her.  The narrative of Ninefox Gambit frequently made brief visits to other viewpoints to provide context or show something that Cheris and Jedao could not have directly observed.  Raven Stratagem is built almost entirely around other viewpoints, and while Cheris/Jedao still acts as the central figure in the story, we get very little time inside their shared head for most of the story.  I recognize that it was an extremely effective choice for the story, but nevertheless, this was probably my least favorite aspect of the book – I really enjoyed seeing how Cheris and Jedao thought about things in Ninefox Gambit.

On the other hand, the new characters we get in exchange are nearly as good.  Kel Brezan has a unique perspective on the Kel by virtue of his ability to resist orders from his superiors, something that most of the Kel are conditioned to be literally unable to do.  Kel Khiruev’s conditioning is working as intended, but she faces her own set of moral quandaries and trust issues in figuring out how to serve under a person she knows only as a traitor and a madman.  Shuos Mikodez, the hexarch of the Shuos faction, is an oddly warm character for all of his merciless plotting.

Ninefox Gambit grabbed my attention in part with its flashy, weird concepts of technology.  Possibly it’s because I was already familiar with it, but Raven Stratagem seems to calm down on that front a little bit, focusing a lot more on the relationships between the characters and the conflicts they create as they each pursue their own goals.  It’s a more mature story in that way, and ultimately a more engaging one, particularly as it’s easy to see two characters come into conflict and still sympathize with both of them.  There are very few places where there’s an obvious right side and wrong side to a fight, and seeing the characters grapple with that concept as well makes for thoughtful and occasionally challenging reading.

As with the first book in the series, Raven Stratagem ends up at the top of my Hugo ballot this year.  It’s a tough field, and I think a good argument could be made for any of the six nominees being the most deserving of the rocket, but I really do hope that Yoon Ha Lee gets some more recognition for the richly detailed and thought-provoking series he’s put together.  (And if not this year, well, I suspect we’ll be seeing the concluding volume Revenant Gun on the ballot next year as well…)

My final Best Novel ballot:

  1. Raven Stratagem, Yoon Ha Lee
  2. Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty​
  3. The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin
  4. Provenance, Ann Leckie
  5. New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson
  6. The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi


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