Yoon Ha Lee blew up like a supernova last year with the release of his debut novel, Ninefox Gambit, earning a double fistful of award nominations (among them the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke awards) for a brainy, intricate space opera as much about identity, the politics of empire, and grief, as it is about flashy space battles and a revolution within a mathematically constructed super-empire known as the Hexarchate. The story follows a military officer in a culture powered by calendrical mathematics—literally drawing energy and order from numbers, holidays, remembrances, and more. Lieutenant Kel Cheris, a brilliant mathematician and an adequate solider, is paired with the digitized mind of an insane, undead general named Shuos Jedao, whose brilliance in battle earned him a stay in the Black Cradle, his consciousness on ice forever. His madness, and the subsequent murder of millions, put him in this eternal prison—unless his skills were needed again.
Ninefox Gambit brought Cheris and Jedao together to combat heretics looking to impose their own calendar into existence, and it ended with Kel Command working to dispatch Jedao and Cheris once the two had done the government’s dirty work. Leaving his madness and her skills unchecked was a danger no one could afford.
Raven Stratagem picks up in the debris of Ninefox Gambit, with the mind of Shuos Jedao seizing control of Cheris’ body and taking command of a military ship and a whole swarm of soldiers. Cheris’ mind seems to have died in the attempt on their lives that ended the first book. To avenge her, Jedao takes control of the Swanknot Swarm and dictates his intent to start a war. There are still heretics out there, but where their plans end, and Jedao’s begin, no one knows. Only a rogue Kel officer, whose formation instinct (the ingrained ability to be commanded) has failed, can hope to stop him. If this sounds like a lot, than buckle up: Yoon Ha Lee is only getting started, and he’s not slowing down for stragglers.
Lee’s ability to balance high science fiction concepts—worlds, cultures, and weapons—with a deep examination of character—tragic flaws, noble purpose, and societal ideas—is nigh unprecedented in space opera. Introducing to a host of new characters, Raven Stratagem takes an even deeper dive into the cruel mechanisms of the Hexarchate—the demands it places on its people, soldier and civilian alike. As fascinating as the newcomers are, it is still Jedao who takes center stage. Inscrutable as ever, irascible as all hell, a man who can terrify with a single glance, he is as fearsome and fascinating as ever. Rather than spend more time in the mind of a madman, Lee does something risky—this time, we only ever see Jedao through the lens of those around him, others must contend with his legacy, remaining calm in the presence of a resurrected ghost. Seeing his contradictions, flaws, and icy intelligence through the eyes of those who have grown up fearing the legend is a brilliant move for a sequel, and it lights a fire under the narrative as the novel races toward another shocking conclusion.
But let’s not ignore the worldbuilding. As bad as the Hexarchate can be, it is not totally dismal. This is a society where gender reassignment happens on a whim, where identity shifts with the wind and no one blinks, where people are free to love whom they will, when they will, how they will. There is good medicine, good education, and good people. The stigmas present in many analogue empires have no purchase here, and amid a chaos-free social strata, there is also art, and music, and fine cuisine. Lee makes sure never to paint the citizens of the Hexarchate as flatly evil. He knows that the trouble with governments are governments, not people—the system, and who runs it, and who it exploits, and how it can be changed for the better.
Raven Stratagem more than lives up to the promise of its predecessor, continuing the intriguing double-sided story of Shuos Jedao, the enigmatic tactician reborn and looking to make things right once and for all. It is a challenging read, but it’s not all philosophizing and waxing poetically about scattering of stars in the Hexarchate. There’s a ton of action, and when it hits, it hits hard. There’s literally a climactic battle in which two space fleets just throw math at each other, and it’s spectacular. Only a mad genius could pull off that maneuver in style—and that madman’s name is Yoon Ha Lee.