I read Ninefox Gambit again to prepare for this, read the whole thing. All while Raven Stratagem sat on my shelf, taunting me, tempting me to just open it, cast the first book aside and find out where the story goes instead of reminding myself where it had already been. But I finished Ninefox, which meant I could, at long last, dive into the sequel.
Brevet General Kel Cheris’ fleet has been destroyed, and she has bonded with the undead general Shuos Jedao, stripping herself of her faction and taking over another Kel swarm for herself. Only Kel Brezan, a crashhawk and formation breaker, manages to wrench himself from the General’s influence, and seeks to destroy his swarm’s captor once and for all. But is Jedao trying to defend the Hexarchate, or is he putting into motion an even more sinister plan… A betrayal four centuries in the making?
One of the main positives of Raven Stratagem, which, as we shall see, is a staple of sci-fi sequels, is the fact that there are many chapters which explore the origins of certain protagonists. These are much more interesting and fun than the muddled nature of some from the first book, offering insight into the background of a character and adding more consistent and grounded lore to the story on the whole. Other than that, honestly, short of flat out copying and pasting the paragraph from my review of Ninefox Gambit praising Ha Lee’s writing style, I have nothing more to say about Raven Stratagem. So… Let’s do just that, shall we? This is going to be a very short paragraph otherwise. Here we go:
“All of the imagery, description, names of the ships and weapons, it’s superb, it really is. It’s just so well-written. I’m going to have to get specific here, so let’s just list some things. The imagination that has been required to come up with all the weapons, ships, factions and imagery throughout is just staggering. Boxmoth troop transports, Cindermoths equipped with Erasure Guns and Dire Cannons, Kel Ashhawks, Threshold Winnowers, it goes on and on. And they never start to get boring, that’s the main thing. So much new weaponry is introduced that drastically turns the tide of battle (and that’s really what this book is about on the whole, so it just adds to the gritty feel) but none of it done cheaply in dull ex machina fashion.”
There! That was easy. But in all seriousness, it’s a problem in and of itself that Raven Stratagem is just consistently good throughout. It becomes sort of… blandly enjoyable. Like a superhero movie, or a dessert that tastes good but is far too big to finish by yourself so you’re left forcing yourself to get through it because you know that even though you feel sick now, it was nice originally so it should be worth it. There are no moments whatsoever that stand out, and whereas with Ninefox I could tell you about Cheris’ duel, the carrion glass flashback sequence, the fungal canister disaster, or the battle with the kaleidoscope bomb. With Raven Stratagem… What happened in this book again?
To be Improved:
Immediately, I actually regretted having read the first book again before picking up this one, because there were many instant discrepancies between this and the ending of Ninefox Gambit. It seems a lot of moments have been tailored for people who decided not to reread the first book so need a little nudging reminder every time something is mentioned. Ah yes, that’s what “lucky unlucky four” is, ah yes, now I remember who the main character is, ah yes, that’s what a boxmoth is. It’s tiresome, and one would think anyone with some semblance of memory wouldn’t need these little prompts. But to go through a more jarring example: Cheris still wears her gloves, despite taking them off in the closing paragraphs of Ninefox Gambit, dramatically stating that she would be Kel no longer. Ooh, scary, but the impact of this is decidedly dulled by the fact that she is now back, once again donning the gloves. To say nothing of the fact that no one is at all surprised to see Captain Cheris alive and well, simply letting her aboard and allowing her to walk straight into the command centre with all her weapons, despite the fact that the entirety of her fleet was just bombed into oblivion. She should be dead and the fact she isn’t should be an immediate cause for concern, yet everyone is hunky-dory about letting an armed captive into the room where all the highest ranking officers are. This is just one example, but it really sticks out and makes me wonder if Yoon Ha Lee even remembered what happened in his own novel before starting its sequel. Very odd. Also, from the first few pages there are spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. This is becoming more than a little tedious, as we saw in my review of Ninefox, so I shall say no more on the matter. Raven Stratagem, on the whole, sees Yoon Ha Lee fall into the same trap as Jeff Vandermeer with the Area X Trilogy, and indeed William Gibson with Neuromancer‘s sequel, wherein the second book in the series is way more political and wooden than the first. It does mean that we get to explore the wider workings of an already-established universe rather than getting bogged down in more of the same, yes, but when the original was as amazing as it was, a little similarity would have gone a long way rather than move backwards. This means that it’s a great shame that Raven Stratagem is as comparatively boring as it is. Many mysterious characters we wanted to know more about are introduced unsubtly and suddenly, obliterating any impact they would otherwise have had, and the characters we know from Ninefox who make a return are bland and lack continuity in relation to how they were before (see above glove example).
Nothing is wrong with Ha Lee’s writing, it must be said. And this book is an enjoyable one to read, unlike Vandermeer or Gibson’s sequels that I couldn’t even get halfway through. However, I should have taken a hint when it came to those two juggernauts, as Raven Stratagem was of course not worth the wait, like my mum told me it wouldn’t be, because sequels hardly ever top the original (perhaps with the exception of Empire Strikes Back). And of course it has left me completely devoid of any excitement or desire to read the finale of the trilogy, if indeed there is going to be one at some point. After Ninefox Gambit, I had so many burning questions that I needed answers to. Those I harbour after Raven Stratagem are embers at best. Sorry, Yoon.