Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee
Publisher - Solaris
Price - £7.99 Paperback (Out Now)
Shuos Jedao is unleashed. The long-dead general, preserved with exotic technologies as a weapon, has possessed the body of gifted young captain Kel Cheris.
Now, General Kel Khiruev's fleet, racing to the Severed March to stop a fresh enemy incursion, has fallen under Jedao's sway. Only Khiruev's aide, Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan, is able to shake off the influence of the brilliant but psychotic Jedao.
The rogue general seems intent on defending the hexarchate, but can Khiruev-or Brezan-trust him? For that matter, can they trust Kel Command, or will their own rulers wipe out the whole swarm to destroy one man?
Last year Yoon Ha Lee created one of the most interesting SF stories I'd read in ages with Ninefox Gambit. A mix of military SF, dizzying ideas on technology and political intrigue. A corrupt and cruel empire had detected a threat to it's existence and bonded their ultimate strategist Judao (who is an insane AI/ghost consciousness) to a young disgraced Captain Cheris. At the end of the book the two escape an internal attack and we were not sure what would happen next. The answer in the sequel is a finely told political SF thriller matching action with revolution and asking some interesting questions about the nature of rebellion.
The Hexarchate that all these characters belong to has many groups and the main warrior group within the group is the Kel. They have created fledging instinct - soldierly will automatically obey the highest rankingn officer without question. Hence all Jedao has to do is turn up and the entire fleet he runs into will obey his orders. The question is then what does Judao who when human had killed millions and is no friend of the leadership of the Hexarchate going to do next? He claims to now be preparing to defend the entire Hexarchate against an invasion from the bordering rival Hafn group but can anyone trust him and how do you defeat a well armed ghost?
If Ninefox was a military SF battle combined with an almost Silence of the Lambs like interpay between the cyncical Juado and the kinder Charis then this is a more military SF and a political drama exploring loyalty. There are some beautiful and tense battles between the Hexarchate and the Hafn in space. This is epic scale - fleets of ships defending planets and space stations; battling fleets and hurling huge mysterious energy traps at one another. The Hafn don't really show themse;lves but when you do find out their attitude to their soldiers they make the Kel seem not so bad. Ha Lee has very good eye for exploring three dimensional space battles and the scenes on Judao's bridge while this goes on are tough. You feel characters stressed and on edge knowing their lives are on the line. It's a finely staged battle of tactics and you get very involved watching the characters working out how to battle this mysterious fleetand it really soars once the set pieces commence.
It is not however my favourite part of the story. That is the wider set of characters we are introduced to who I think help explore the book's themes. Judao is a mystery and seems on the edge of an internal battle between hoping to redeem himself or wanting to let rip at everything that has attempted to destroy him; in counterpoint as Charis is no more we have General Khiruev and Lieutenant Brezan and each of these has an internal battle against the Kel fledging instinct. Brezan is a 'crashhawk' a soldier who isn't able to just obey all orders but his larger loyalty to the Hexarchate means he sees Judao as a threat and a lot of the book explores how he has to try and infiltrate the fleet to get to him and stop his control. Khiruev is I think the more interesting character initially able to resist Judao's power she finds herself drawn to his cause and this sets her on a crisis between her nature. Can she live with herself knowing she is a traitor or can she continue to serve an empire she knows is out of control?
Against all three we have the fascinating new character Mikodez a genius tactician in the Shuos faction within the Hexarchate - a group know for their tactical brilliance and ruthlessness. He is an interesting counterpoint to Judao - far more approachable, keen to eat sweets and tend to plants yet known for sacrificing cadets at the academy to win tactical games and is firmly embroiled in the battle for power withint he Hexarchate itself. Is he going to the one to finally end Judao's comeback or has he a greater goal in mind?
Powerplay in factions can be a hallmark of military SF but rather than use this to say the soliders are far more nobler than the generals we have amore interesting question posed to us. The Hexarchate is ultimately despite amazing technology that allows you to change your form; fly around space and colonise so many planets is now ultimately a dictatorship. It requires the mental belief of it's citizens to provide the power for the technologies it wields. Our soldiers here have all destroyed the uprisings (heresies) where some have tried to resist. No one is truly innocent and we see a chilling use of that power when the Hexarchate exact a brutal revenge on Charis' own people just for her becoming the vehicle Judao uses to be free. The book asks why do people allow terrible things to happen; is it fear or weariness that no one believes you can win? Is it because if you are benefiting why would you disturb the status quo? Safe to say once again SF provides timely commentary on our own times and the answers make you think uncomfortably about our own internal battles.
I found very little that I thought needed improving and I'm fascinated where the larger story is now going. It often brings to mind Iain Bank's Culture series as here is a society that could do anything but here far more obsessed with power and control. Interestingly the AIs here are clever but purely serving staff but they do see everything....
So if you would like a tasty mix of SF battles and politics I would strongly recommend you try this book out but just be careful who you trust as you explore this darker patch of space opera.