The Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee

Reviewing the second book in a series is sometimes the most difficult kind of blog post.  The Raven Stratagem, book two in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of War series, is a lot of what one might expect after book one, and yet also plenty more.  The draw is the system of calendrical warfare and control  utilized by the hexarchate in order to maintain the system that has kept its leaders in power for centuries, but what keeps one reading is the intense focus on personal motivation and the overpowering humanity of the characters, even those who veer far outside the scale of normal social behavior and even sanity.

This novel picks up where Ninefox Gambit left off, with Kel Cheris a lifeless husk controlled by the terrifying revenant Shuos Jedao after the hexarchate attempted to take Jedao out following his successful quelling of rebellion at the Fortress of Scattered Needles.  Jedao knows he will always be too dangerous to remain alive, and yet he is determined to follow through with the mission of eliminating all threats to the hexarchate, and not just the original rebellion.  Meanwhile, at Shuos headquarters–at all hexarch headquarters, leaders are scrambling not only to figure out what Jedao is up to, but to maintain their own grasps of power and outmaneuver each other.

The driving motivations for most of the characters profiled in this novel, though we see the action from their points of view, are difficult to parse.  It is a given in the hexarchate that anyone with any bit of power has something to hide, and Lee sketches each character’s life as if it is a straight line leading up to the very moment of challenge or conflict they face in the novel, and yet every person’s life is far from a straight, intelligible progression of cause and effect.  Like the storms of war that plague the hexarchate, every person’s life is bound up with the cause and effect actions of others, and few can see to the roots of the struggle.

Cheris was originally chosen for her task of carrying Jedao because of her ability to think outside the Kel box she chose for herself, Brezan rises to astonishing heights for being a crashhawk–one who can resist Kel formation instinct, essentially military brainwashing–and Khiruev, whose fleet is appropriated by Jedao in Cheris’ body, can only succeed at failure.  Lee has taken all the complicated and frustrating aspects of humanity and painted them across the universe, greed, hatred, love, loyalty all fighting it out among the swarms and formations and exotic weapons and phantom terrain.

It’s a beautiful, fascinating, utterly confusing novel, and I look forward to book three with great anticipation.

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Zero Sum Game, by S.L. Huang

When
people need a job done, they call Cass Russell.  In Los Angeles, she’s know for doing the impossible, which
is why Dawna Polk begs Cass to rescue her sister Courtney from a drug cartel
compound, where Courtney had inexplicably gotten herself imprisoned.  And then Cass’s day got even weirder.

Up
and down the parking-lot-freeways of L.A., Cass and her tentative allies chase
one shadowy group of people after another, trying to solve the mystery of
Courtney Polk.  Zero Sum Game is near non-stop action,
fueled by Cass’s uncanny abilities with complex mathematics, the kind that
makes her look like Spiderman, Batman, and Ironman all rolled into one, with a
little Joker thrown in around the edges. 
Because Cass Russell is not afraid to kill.  Life is a zero sum game, and when someone has a gun pointed
at you, the only way to win is to kill first and ask questions later.

Huang’s
writing is dialog-driven, full of action and complicated mathematical
calculations.  Cass is a mystery,
the story told from her point of view, pulling the reader along one plot twist
after another until the final reveal. 
With rumors of a group of people who not only can read but control
minds, Cass and her allies never know who to trust, and Huang is skilled at
setting up plots that continue to unravel unexpectedly and give the reader
plenty to chew over.  

Readers
who enjoy stories full of moral ambiguity, with no clear heroes, will breath a
sigh of relief at the brash, matter-of-fact way Cass approaches the world, and
the people she comes up against. 
Those who enjoy science fiction that relies heavily on higher
mathematical or scientific principles will find themselves joy-riding with Cass
as she leaps tall buildings and effortlessly defies the laws of L.A.
traffic.  Anyone looking for their
next superhero should definitely check out Zero
Sum Game
and the rest of the Russell’s Attic series.