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.

Hugo reading 2018: Extracurricular Activities, by Yoon Ha Lee

Extracurricular Activities” by Yoon Ha Lee is set in the same universe as Ninefox Gambit, which I haven’t read since last year, and so it took me a little while to realise that, oh, wait, THAT’s who the protagonist is. THAT being a young Shuos Jedao, years before his atrocities, and thus many, many years before his consciousness decanted into the brain of Kel Cheris at the start of Ninefox Gambit. So that was a double take.

This story is basically a spy story caper, in space. It contains many of my favourite tropes – I love characters who seem to be utter dilletantes or wastrels on the surface who turn out to be super competent, and we had some of that; I adored Jedao’s mother, who is even more formidable than he is, in her own particular way; and Jedao himself was a delight, and very nearly as brilliant as he thinks he is. I enjoyed the humour in the mis-translations when he is trying to infiltrate the Gwa Reality (and what IS the problem with his haircut?), and I liked the interactions between characters. (Also, just randomly, genderqueer characters seem to be a thing this Hugo year. The puppies must be feeling very sad indeed by now.)

In fact, I enjoyed everything about this story except… the story itself, really. I did not want that ending. I especially did not want that ending in that universe, given the prevalence of torture everywhere.

I’m not sure quite how to rate this one. Up until I realised where the story had to go, I liked it most of all the novelettes so far – but I don’t think the story was flawed in and of itself. Just… not the story I wanted. Which is probably unfair, because Yoon Ha Lee is always going to write well, but he is definitely NEVER going to be writing the sort of stories that make me happy – he likes to raise the stakes too much.

Hugo reading: Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Today’s novel was Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee.

I really didn’t expect to like this one, since it is military science fiction, which doesn’t generally appeal to me.  And, to be honest, it was rather like reading a book in another language – French, perhaps, because I understood most of it, but I had to work at it, and I felt as though there was vocabulary that eluded me.  I suspect one needs quite a visual sort of imagination to follow what was going on with the various battles and campaigns, and I just don’t have that sort of brain.

But despite all of that, I really liked it.  I didn’t quite love it, mostly because of my difficulty following the action sequences, but I’m definitely going to want to re-read it, and then go and read the other books in the series.

Also, let it be known that Yoon Ha Lee did not kill the cat.  And about time, too, if you ask me.  This alone would push Ninefox Gambit up the ballot for me.

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