It’s easy, in so many ways, to write revolutions; the harder thing to write is the aftermath. Revenant Gun, the third volume in Yoon Ha Lee’s twice Hugo-nominated Machineries of Empire trilogy, writes the aftermath of revolution with sensitivity and poise, charting a path forward in the confusing mess of sudden freedom and the terror that invokes. There’s no easy path out of a society whose very technology is predicated on torture.
Raven Stratagem, the second in the series, ends on a question, the way all revolutions do: what will we be going forward? Kel Cheris—both with and without the memories and abilities of mass-murdering general Shuos Jedao—has reordered the calendrical mathematics that underpin the empire of the Hexarchate. In this rough universe, adherence to the “calendar” requires the blood sacrifice of heretics in order for basic technology to function. Kel Cheris, in concert with one of the hexarchs, Shuos Mikodez, has blown this paradigm away.
In continuing from there, Revenant Gun reminds me of N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky. Both are trilogy-ending novels that take deep dives into the past while nevertheless focusing on the deeply interpersonal. Kel Cheris was tethered to the psychotic general Shuos Jedao back in Ninefox Gambit. Jedao’s personality had been decanted, despite (or because of) his genocidal actions, to be invoked and used by the Hexarchate in times of utmost need. (In this case, against the Hafn, another expansionist empire.) Jedao and the soldier Cheris shared a body and a mind in Ninefox Gambit, an experience Cheris took with her into the events of Raven Stratagem. There she posed as Jedao (whose memories she retained) to commandeer a Hexarchate swarm and spike the empire’s calendar. Cheris reordered reality itself in Raven Stratagem, as far as she could manage. The Hexarchate is no more. Long live… what exactly?
Revenant Gun picks up both immediately after the events of Raven Stratagem, and at a nine-year distance. One of the point of view characters is High General Brezan, a crashhawk who threw in his allegiance with Cheris/Jedao’s revolution. (A crashhawk is a member of the soldiering class, the Kel, resistant either wholly or partially to the obedience conditioning all soldiers are subjected to in the empire’s calendar.) Brezan was able to overcome Kel conditioning in a situation of complex allegiance, escaping to warn the hexarchs of the coming storm. But no good deed goes unpunished in the Hexarchate, and Brezan was sent in to use the very conditioning he was immune to in order to defeat Cheris/Jedao.
This novel shifts in time, jumping across the nine years following Kel Cheris’s empire-ending actions. The Hexarchate has splintered into three factions. Two are remnants of the empire that constitute different, complementary fragments of the once-empire. One is run by the aforementioned Brezan according to Cheris’s new, freer calendar, along with what everyone assumes to be the last hexarch, Mikodez. The other is commanded by a Kel general who still largely adheres to the old calendar, one that forces rigid adherence to hierarchy through calendrical control. Neither are aware of Nirai Kujen metastasizing out there in the dark, the last and most important hexarch.
Kujen has revived Shuos Jedao as a memory-wiped teenager, and is putting him through his paces, using him always and again as his personal tool. Jedao’s first memory is one of petty boarding school antics, and is singularly unprepared to be thrown into command of Kujen’s swarm. He’s also unprepared for the almost violent reaction of the Kel soldiers who must follow his orders; he simply cannot remember the events that made him the Jedao of the Black Cradle, mass murderer and ghost. He is, in many ways, the eponymous revenant gun. The events of the trilogy have dealt largely with Cheris or Jedao in multiple incarnations, both inhabiting the same skin and at a distance, in fragments and wholeness, in youth and with the measured exhaustion of experience.
This volume also dives deep into the history of Nirai Kujen, and therefore of the origins of the Hexarchate, while at the same time struggling forward into a universe without his brutal calendar. It follows the lives of the most lowly—like that of a Nirai machine servitor largely abandoned on a secret station for centuries—to the almost immortal architects of the empire. It is a fitting and compelling conclusion to one of the most striking space operas I’ve ever read.