Hugo reading 2018: Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

Oh, wow, I’d forgotten about reading books where I don’t have to force myself to keep reading!  I hadn’t realised how much hard work the last two books were until I started Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem, and basically devoured a quarter of it before I even knew what was happening.

Raven Stratagem is the second book in a series, but in my view, it passes the ‘does this book stand alone?’ test with flying colours.  I read the first book, Ninefox Gambit, when it was nominated last year, and had forgotten most of the plot.  My memories were basically ‘main character has this long dead, brilliant, but genocidal, strategist in her head and there is space opera and also maths and calendars make the technology work.  Also, torture makes the calendars work.’

I had, in fact, forgotten everyone’s names, why the main character was chosen to have the strategist implanted in her head, and what happened at the end of the first book – all I remembered was that I liked the relationship between the main character and her ghostly sidekick.   And the weird maths/magic/technology stuff.

It didn’t matter.  We meet Jedao (the long-dead strategist) almost immediately, and we know he is in Cheris’s body.  And we get more of the mechanics of that later.  We also get shown fairly early on how the calendar/maths/technology stuff works.  But once you’ve taken the technology on-board, the plot stands alone.  Yes, it’s enriched by the first book, but the first book isn’t necessary to it.

Once again, I felt that the strength of this book was in its relationships and in its worldbuilding.  I really liked the various viewpoint characters, and enjoyed spending time in their heads (which… feels like a strange sort of double-meaning in the context of the book).  One concept that hadn’t been very much unpacked in the first book (I think) was ‘formation instinct’ – something implanted in the soldier caste (the Kel) that apparently makes it impossible for them to disobey orders from a superior officer – or rather, if they try, their body will try to prevent them.  But it’s more than just about obeying orders – it also seems to implant an absolute loyalty to whoever the commanding officer currently is.  This makes it tricky when someone with a higher rank and a terrible reputation comes in and tries to take over.  During the book, we see that there are a couple of exceptions to this rule, but the price of being such an exception is costly, both socially and physically.  But the deeper you dig into this idea, the more disturbing its implications… true, the Kel consent to have the formation instinct implanted (though it is questionable whether this is an informed choice), but that is in many ways the last time they can consent to anything.

Which is perhaps also a metaphor for the military in its current form – but it’s deeply creepy.

There is a lot of pretty awful stuff taking place in this book.  There is some on-stage and fairly grotesque torture (a single seen, mercifully short), but it’s a single scene and you can sort of see it coming, and skim that bit without missing anything vital.   There are underlying and concerning issues in the Hexarchy (the fact that it runs on torture, and has an entire caste for that, for example, isn’t great…).  And there is genocide, discussed in frighteningly administrative detail.

But despite all this, it seemed lighter than the first book – perhaps because it’s clear from the start that this is not OK and someone is trying to do something about it.

The plot itself is delightfully twisty – I saw a couple of the turns coming, but it was still fun watching them approach – and is quietly making a lot of points about choice and ethics and sacrifice and consent, which I also enjoyed.

Also, it is so BLISSFULLY readable.  I could just… read it and enjoy it, rather than having to fight the text to figure out what was going on (looking at you, Stone Sky), or wade through dull prose and economic theory to enjoy the (admittedly highly enjoyable) characters (hi, New York 2140).  This is going to the top of my ballot for now – though I have to say, the three remaining books are all looking pretty promising, so I’ll be interested to see if it stays there.