The Machineries of Empire Series
by Yoon Ha Lee
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: Ninefox Gambit / Book 2: Raven Stratagem / Book 3: Revenant Gun
I read Ninefox Gambit last year because it was nominated for a Hugo. It was also a finalist for Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards, and it won a Locus for Best 1st Novel. I did not review it at that time because I was confused about a lot of it, and felt a need to re-read to clarify several things. I would have done that already if it had won either Hugo or Nebula, but now the second book in the series is a finalist for this year's Hugo. I'm not voting this time, but still want to read all the nominated novels if I can. I suppose I could say I've read this more than twice, since on both occasions I had to re-read paragraphs, whole pages, entire chapters, in an attempt to understand what was going on. I've seen similar opinions from others on Goodreads and Amazon, but I haven't read any professional reviews. At this time I cannot say I'm any less confused. This will be more an explanation of that confusion rather than a typical review, and hopefully I can do it without spoiling much of the plot.
I'm willing to admit the problem might be my comprehension skills and not any fault of the author. I'm fairly intelligent, but know I have some limitations, and one of those concerns mathematics. Yoon Ha Lee has degrees in math, and while the math and physics here are likely fictional, I was still lost through most of it. Lee is of Korean heritage, and while born in the US he spent some of his early years in South Korea, including high school. Some of the confusion may stem from either a style of writing unique to Asia, or social customs or perspectives from that culture, and maybe some of the plot is based on Korean history, about which I know nothing. Many personal names, as well as names of places and ships, have a distinct Asian sound; City of Ravens Feasting, City of Firefly Desires, Hall of Stochastic Longings, and the ships Autumn Flute, Six Sticks Standing, Sincere Greeting, Unspoken Law. The same for tactical military formations; Pir's Fan, One Thorn Poisons a Thousand Hands, Pyre Burns Inward.
In this universe the ruling body is the Hexarchate, six different factions of various disciplines. They are the Shuos, Nirai, Rahal, Andan, Vidona, and Kel. It had been a heptarchate until a seventh faction, the Liozh, was eliminated for heresy. Another major point of confusion is if this heresy involved a spiritual belief or an intellectual one. Technology is said to work according to a High Calendar, but heretical calendars cause tech to work differently, or to counteract the tech of another calendar. Calendar does not mean just a measurement of time, but a set of physical/mathematical theories. I think. I suppose it could also involve metaphysical theory, or other factors, but I honestly can't tell you. The Shuos faction seems a lot like our State Department, but combined with intelligence gathering agencies, as well as assassins. The Nirai are the mathematicians who formulate the High Calendar, while the Rahal are the enforcers of the calendar. The Kel are the primary military force, both ground infantry and space navy, although other factions can be assigned to serve with them. I never did grasp the function of the other two members of the hexarchate.
The names of the factions might have originated as family names, and as is the case with Asian culture, the family name comes first. The story begins on the planet Dredge during a military assault led by Captain Kel Cheris. She chose to be Kel even though her math aptitude could have placed her in the Nirai faction. Her strategy proves successful against the exotic weapons of a heretical group, but just when they are about to achieve their objective, orders come from above to abandon the siege and prepare for extraction. Several superiors have taken note of her math skills and think she could be useful for another assignment, an assault on the Fortress of Scattered Needles, which has been taken over by another heretical group. It turns out they are ones who want to re-establish the Liozh faction. Some four hundred years prior to this, General Shuos Jedao, the most successful military commander of many generations, apparently went insane. He not only killed practically the entire population of a group they were fighting, he also assassinated all of his command staff. He is technically dead but his consciousness was retained in the "black cradle," which had been invented by the Hexarch Nirai Kujen, also the inventor of the ship propulsion system known as the "mothdrive," along with many other technological marvels. He is the only hexarch to gain near immortality without also going insane. He may actually be insane, but able to hide that fact from others, or its an insanity others can tolerate. Periodically, Jedao is taken out of the black cradle and "anchored" to another person to aid in a military campaign. In this instance he is anchored to Kel Cheris, who gets a field promotion to Brevit General.
Here we have another confusing scenario. Kel Cheris can hear Jedao talk to her but no one else can hear him, but others can sense his presence due to a shadow cast beside her. When he speaks it is not as if he is in her head, he can sound as if he is in different locations within the same room. The way it is described his essence is not imbedded within her body or brain, and yet I don't understand the "anchoring" otherwise. An incident late in the book changes that, and they are apparently permanently bonded to each other. That incident involves a weapon called a carrion bomb, which was intended to kill Jedao, whereas it killed every other person on the ship except for Jedao and Cheris. There's no way I can explain the effects of that bomb and how it changed Cheris that would make any sense. I was confused through the majority of the book, although I did appreciate the conclusion more this time. Of course, it's not a conclusion, there are two more books (at least) in the saga. In the end, Jedao/Cheris are convinced all of the hexarchate wants them dead, but they are confident they can out-maneuver them. The major question I'm left with is whether or not Cheris has any autonomy left, or if Jedao is in complete control. Perhaps now that she essentially is Jedao, there won't be any conflict between them. Also, we may learn that Jedao is not the insane one, or at least that his agenda makes sense. We shall see.
The confusion continues in Raven Stratagem, including the puzzle of exactly who controls the body of Kel Cheris. It appears to be Jedao, not only in the actions they take, but also Cheris now exhibits the body language and speech patterns of Jedao. Either Kel Command thinks Jedao is truly dead and Cheris is free of the anchoring, or else Jedao has a way of compromising Command's communications. Kel Cheris is assigned to another mothswarm to combat an incursion of the Hafn fleet, but things don't go as they plan.
One thing I didn't mention before is the nature of the Kel mindset. They are the ultimate soldiers, dedicated to duty and honor, and follow a rigid set of ethics. It's not just discipline, they are indoctrinated in specific ways. Their military formations are designed to both support their calendar's exotic weapons, and to counteract a heretical calendar's weapons. They call their actions and strategy "formation instinct," but that instinct is not inherent, but rather "injected" into them. It's described in such a way as to invoke the notion of a brain-washing technique, something very difficult for loyal Kel to ever abandon. They are sticklers for protocol. There are many "jokes" concerning how a Kel would rather commit suicide than defy an order, or break formation. Anyone who cannot incorporate formation instinct in their actions rarely graduate from Kel Academy to active military. The Kel signifier, or sigil, is that of the Ashhawk. Anyone who fails Academy, or later breaks formation instinct or refuses an order, is referred to as a crashhawk.
Even though Jedao was Shuos he had been reassigned (seconded) to the Kel, making him part of their chain of command. All of the Kel were aware of Jedao, having studied both his successful campaigns as well as his traitorous actions at Hellspin Fortress. This study included watching videos of him. As soon as Cheris enters the bridge of the cindermoth Hierarchy of Feasts, everyone notices body language and facial expressions that convince them General Shuos Jedao is now taking command. Since he presents his current rank and identifies himself, all accede to his authority, even fleet commander General Kel Khiruev, in accordance with Kel doctrine. Well, all but Colonel Kel Brezan, who draws his weapon to fire on Jedao. Instead of killing him, Jedao merely shoots the gun out of his hand. Now branded a crashhawk, Brezan is shuttled out of the fleet, along with all non-Kel personnel, who would not be bound by formation instinct and might fight against Jedao's agenda.
There is more explanation here of the structure of society and the way the hexarchate operate. There are both rivalires between the six, as well as coalitions of two or more of them to promote contrasting ideologies. We also get flashbacks for Khiruev and Brezan to understand how each of their experiences shaped their later lives. Brezan had barely graduated Kel Academy, with minimal aptitude for formation instinct, and had expected and desired a post to a clerical division rather than a combat moth. Khiruev's family life was one that should have directed her away from the strictures of Kel military, and yet she prides herself on following their doctrine. So why does she continue to follow Jedao's orders even after Kel Command strips him of his rank, issuing an order for his capture or death? She continues to support Jedao's control of the fleet as they engage the Hafn incursion, dealing them decisive blows which cause them to retreat.
Throughout the book I was wondering whether or not the Hafn invasion was just a ploy concocted by Jedao to give him the opportunity to maneuver to the position of his ultimate objective, the destruction of the hexarchate entire. The title of this book should have given me a clue as to what was actually going on, but I won't explain that, and unless you've read the first book you won't know the significance. The title of the third book gives me a clue where the story goes from here, and it's something that's been in the back of my mind from the beginning, although I wasn't aware of a particular situation until its reveal in the second book. Or if it was mentioned in the first I missed it. While the second book gave more details, and was slightly less confusing, I was disappointed that a lot of it was just a set up for the conclusion to the trilogy, which will be released on June 12. I have an advance copy from Net Galley, and will add to this review when I finish it.
I commend the author for being consistent throughout this series. Revenant Gun is just as confusing and frustrating as the first two books. Hexarch Nirai Kujen's immortality is not what I had thought at first. His existence is similar to that of Jedao. It is his consciousness that has survived over 900 years, but he experiences life while anchored to another body, and he supposedly has the ability to shift from one body to another at any sign of danger, making him practically impossible to kill. Thus, the word revenant could refer to either Kujen or Jedao, or both, or the other option is that it only refers to the commandmoth ship that Jedao names the Revenant. Something not revealed until this book is that the mothdrive is tethered to a sentient alien being, a moth being the closest equivalent humans know. Jedao is psychically linked to the consciousness of the moth at the heart of the Revenant.
I guess you're thinking that Jedao is dominant, that Cheris is dead. Wrong. The person taking command of the Hierarchy of Feasts in the second book was Cheris, although she retained most of Jedao's memories, and could mimic his style of speech and body movements. So that must mean that Jedao was killed at the end of the first book, and Cheris was able to fake it from there. Wrong again. Apparently Cheris was anchored to just a copy of Jedao, Kujen still maintained the consciousness of the general in the black cradle. Maybe. Or is Kujen capable of creating a new consciousness and convince it that it is Jedao? It makes more sense that way since the new Jedao is missing a lot of its memory. Plus, he's not anchored to another human, his body is artificial, a simulacra, one that is extremely difficult, maybe impossible, to kill or injure. On several occasions Jedao is shot multiple times, including in the head and heart, or at least where the heart would be if he was human, but he recovers in short order. If Kujen could create such a being, why bother with anchoring to mere mortals all the other times Jedao was utilized? What was the point of not allowing the new Jedao to have all its memories if it was to carry out Kujen's plan? I'm also still confused about the Kel formation instinct, so much so that I have a feeling I'm thinking of it in entirely different terms as the author. How could a formation implemented by an infantry group on the surface of a planet have any effect on the vulnerability of Kujen while on a mothship in orbit? The answers to all these questions of course is still, I don't know. Remember...confusing!
I've assumed this trilogy was complete, but I suspect Lee might write more about this universe. Why else not fully develop the story of the moths? Why introduce the sub-category of beings called servitors, robotic maintenance machines that are obviously sentient, give hints as to a heirarchy within their culture, but leave that story minimally explored? What about the Mwennin society from which Cheris came, a people who traditionally shun aligning with any of the factions, but whom Cheris shunned when she decided to be Kel? Many of them were slaughtered in the second book, including Cheris' parents, as a means of punishing Cheris for her actions, even though Kel Command thought Jedao was the one really in charge. The Shuos were able to extract a few of them before the slaughter, but the reasons for that, and what happened to them afterwards was never explored. Too many plot elements introduced but not fully developed. If there is another book in this sequence I doubt I'll read it.
I realize my opinion is counter to many others. I've rated all of them just 3 stars on Goodreads, with the first worth maybe a fraction more, the other two a bit less. The average from other readers, in order of first book to last, is 3.88, 4.2, and 4.45. The blurb on the front cover of the first book is from Alastair Reynolds: "An effortlessly accomplished SF novel." Perhaps effortless for the author and others in tune with his style and what he was trying to do, but a major effort for me to read. Yeah, it could just be me, but I did not connect with these books, and I can't recommend them.
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