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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SFF Books of 2017 I’m Excited to Read

Bear with me, these may not all be from this year, but I’m still excited for them!  I’m really bad with deadlines/pub dates.

  1. The Ship Beyond Time, by Heidi Heilig

The characters of The Girl From Everywhere really stuck with me, and I loved the way she plotted this time travel fantasy (I’m kind of a sucker for time travel), so I will definitely be checking out this sequel.  Plus the cover art!

2. All Systems Red, by Martha Wells.

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This novel has gotten awesome reviews from SFF fans I trust.  Plus it’s got robots, in space, with snark.  What’s not to love?

3. Provenance, by Ann Leckie.

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I finally acquired Ancillary Sword, which I mean to read soonish, and I loved Ancillary Justice for more reasons I can express in this teeny space, so anything she writes is on my auto-TBR list.

4. Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly.

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This novel makes me think fantasy noir roaring twenties.  It came out early in the year, but crops up on my Twitter feed from time to time, and every time I’m reminded I need to read this novel!

5. The Stone in the Skull, by Elizabeth Bear

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Bear is one of my favorite authors, in any genre, and this novel is set in the same world as the Eternal Sky trilogy, only taking place in a different kingdom.  Her superior skill with narrative and character make Bear both versatile and readable, as she’s published in multiple sub-genres, both in short and long fiction formats.

 

So that’s just a taste of what I’m looking forward to reading from this year.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty  more to add to this list before the year’s out!

Starfang: Rise of the Clan, by Joyce Chng

As space opera goes, Starfang: Rise of the Clan felt like a prologue to something much bigger.  It had all the elements of a compelling space adventure: a mystery, aliens, warring families, future technology, just waiting to be fleshed out into a winding tale of intrigue and interesting characters.  It still might turn out that way, with future installments of the series that Chng has yet to write, but it was wrapped up too quickly to really sink one’s teeth into.

Francesca Ming Yue is captain of the Starfang, one of the warships her clan uses to enforce its supremacy in their area of space and to carry out its various wars against other clans.  Francesca is a werewolf, one of homo sapiens lupus, a species whose origins is shrouded in mystery, and yet not shy about taking what it wants in a universe that has left Earth behind, and yet not forgotten it.  Starfang: Rise of the Clan is also a refreshing twist on the typical werewolf plot one sees in the Anglo publishing world, in that not only is it a tale of werewolves in space, but the origins of these clans are Asian, their customs and foods drawing from Chinese and Southeast Asian culture.

Francesca’s characterization, as the narrator and center of the story, hints at a complex backstory and complicated motivations behind her dutiful assumption of duty when ordered to a sector of space known for black market drugs and shady dealings, but the reader sees so little of her and what people think about her, aside from what she tells, that it’s difficult to get a read on what really makes her tick.  As tantalizing as her story might be for readers of the urban fantasy genre who may come in more invested than the average fantasy reader, without a deeper look into her character, it’s difficult to suspend disbelief and buy into the plot.

So, in the end, Starfang: Rise of the Clan is packed with fascinating tidbits and hints at more to come, but a little flat in its current iteration.

Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds

Arafura Ness has a problem. With an overprotective father on one side, an over-adventurous sister on another, and a single-minded robot babysitter on the other, Arafura Ness is being pulled in more directions than she can handle. What’s a girl to do? Obviously, the answer is run away to space. It’s dangerous, true, but what’s out there in the black is the least of Arafura’s worries. If she can survive her new crew without being thrown out into the Empty, that’ll be enough for her.

It’s never that easy, though, especially in a world where the only thing left to the lonely spindle worlds and wheelworlds and shellworlds of the Congregation, huddling at one end of the galaxy closest to the dying sun of old Earth, is digging up the past and selling it off one bauble at a time, trying to remember all the glories of old civilizations. Just when Arafura and her sister Adrana start to feel like they’re part of something, like they’re going somewhere with their lives, it all goes wrong, and Arafura will have to go deeper than anyone’s dared to try to make it right.

Revenger is an adventure tale, start to finish, and a distinct departure from his past galaxy-spanning science fiction odysseys. Arafura’s is a character-based plot, driven by personality and pain, with the kind of energy that only sisterly outrage can bring. Those used to Reynolds’ detached narration may be surprised by the steep drop he takes into the Wild West world of the Congregation, the frontier-town feeling of space-farers and planet-dwellers alike. The world building he’s put into this novel is both satisfying and entertaining.

Lovers of space opera and adventure science fiction will be drawn to the fast-paced tale of two sisters who just want to get away and see the world beyond their little planet. Fans of Star Wars and other galaxy-spanning tales will enjoy both the plot and descriptions of space ships, planets, and aliens. Revenger is a novel you’ll want to read all at once, spurred on by one of the oldest stories in the world: revenge and redemption.

 

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice is downright confusing
to read for the first hundred or so pages.  And that’s entirely the point.  In a universe-spanning tale of action and intrigue, Leckie
confronts—and forces the reader to confront—the idea of knowledge, particularly
self-knowledge, and how we can truly know anything, particularly ourselves.

Breq,
as she refers to herself, is a person trekking across the universe on a
personal quest.  She is also a
ship, the Justice of Toren, in the
imperial fleet, watching everything her crew does.  She is the mind not only of the ship itself, but also of a
thousand bodies who assist her officers in their duties, maintain order, and
above all serve Anaander Mianaai.           

Jumping
straight over the how of creating
real artificial intelligence and giving it emotion to boot, Leckie takes up the
ethics of the act.  In putting a
ship’s ancillaries—those human bodies who have been refitted to and connected
to the greater mind of the ship—in direct opposition to the ship itself, its
officers, ad the people of annexed worlds, Leckie explores how self-knowledge
is truly created and understood. 
Do we as contemporary humans understand ourselves wholly from a
subjective viewpoint, or only as separate and opposite from those around us, be
they  either sentient or
non-sentient?  She obliquely, and
then directly through one of the characters Breq encounters, asks whether
creating intelligence also creates a soul, and a separate will.

In
a story in which half the characters are different iterations of the same
person, Leckie does an outstanding job at characterization, imbuing her main
characters with that something that
makes a character unique and alive. 
Other than Breq, who is the point-of-view, Leckie doesn’t attempt to get
into the heads of her characters, letting their actions and interactions tell
their stories.  As in life, what is
assumed, what is said about someone, often tells just as much as the truth.

Readers
who enjoy modern space opera and military science fiction will enjoy Leckie’s
vision of a far-future inter-galactic empire, particularly those who enjoy the
vision and knowledge that Alistair Reynolds puts into his novels but want a
little more introspection in terms of character and motivation.  Those who love the exacting
anthropology of Ursula K. Le Guin or Elizabeth Bear’s science fiction will love
the long step into a new future that Leckie takes with her work.  Readers who enjoy explorations of self,
such as those created by Toni Morrison will surely find much to love in the
more cerebral aspects of Leckie’s work.