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.