How do you follow-up a breathtaking, multiple award-nominated debut that combined world-changing technologies, interesting reality-altering mathematics and awesome characters?
You change perspective. Then add a plot to change the world. And then twist everything around half way through.
Raven Stratagem is the sequel to Yoon Ha Lee’s phenomenal Ninefox Gambit, a sequel that is as mind-blowing as its predecessor but in a completely different way. Talk about reinventing a successful work!
The Hafn have been trying to invade Hexarchate territory, and all that stands between them and ruin is the suicidal Kel, as well as the Hexarchate’s weapon of mass destruction (which was deployed in Ninefox Gambit): the resurrected General Jedao. Jedao was inserted into the mind of Kel captain Cheris, a mathematical genius who struggled with Kel formation instinct, the groupthink conformity strategy that the Hexarchate and the Kel rely on to keep things going. Cheris always wondered whether the Hexarchate was even a good thing, and those who read Ninefox Gambit will know the answer is a resounding no. But the Hafn are no good either – and our heroes find themselves in a position of having to fight off an outside enemy that needs to be destroyed while simutaneously planning a revolution from the inside.
I was super curious to see where the story would go. Enter Raven Stratagem: opening with Kel General Khiruev, who is about to go fight the Hafn when her vessel is boarded by Cheris/Jedao. Since everybody knows that Jedao is inside Cheris – the assumption being that he took over completely – and Jedao is a senior general, formation instinct kicks in and Jedao takes over, sending away anyone who would try to resist him. He goes off to do his own thing, to the dismay of everybody in command.
Here is the thing: for over more than half of Raven Stratagem, the viewpoint narrative is exclusively not-Cheris/Jedao. It changes between several characters who all believe Cheris is gone. But we the readers know different – or at least we hope we do – and part of the fun of the novel is the wait to see not only the coin drop but how. This could have easily backfired (I came here for Cheris and Jedao) but this turned out to be not only a clever narrative choice but one that allowed for other characters and viewpoints to come through. It’s a novel that balances the deeply personal and the wider world. It also prompts big questions about genocide, the idea of what immortality and everlasting power does to people, and whether anything is excusable in pursuit of the greater good.
With all that in mind, the ending felt shortchanged and perhaps too easy – but possibly I felt this way because I was reading from the wrong perspective. I can only hope that the next book changes things up again and we get a whole novel from the servitors’ viewpoint. How fun would that be?
In Booksmugglerish: 8 out of 10.