I am so pleased the sequel to Ninefox Gambit came out as quickly as it did. I mean, it’s out in the same year as the first one is being considered for Nebula and Hugo*… I fully support Yoon Ha Lee’s dedication to not letting me fret about what happens next (incidentally, when’s the next one out? The internet doesn’t seem to be telling me, alas). And, shockingly for someone who wrote something quite so good as Ninefox Gambit, the sequel is excellent.
On balance, overall, I prefer the first book to the second, but I only say that after considerable thought, because Raven Stratagem is a pretty damn good book, and an excellent sequel. It avoids a lot of awkward middle book syndrome, and balances out really well with Ninefox Gambit, giving you a lot (but not all) of the information you missed out on in the first one and were kind of wanting.
Essentially, one of the key features (for me) of Ninefox Gambit is how it skims over a LOT of possible exposition. The real charm is not knowing how the science/magic works, and the story still functioning brilliantly around it. However, you also don’t get a huge amount of knowledge of how the political system works, beyond what is key to the plot, and because the whole world and political system are kind of important, I definitely felt a desire to get more information there. Raven Stratagem definitely covers that issue. It manages to do so, however, without feeling the need to cover the same ground again in case you’ve forgotten, and without wandering off from the plot of its own story. Everything you get feels entirely natural and sensible… it just happens to fill some of the gaps left by the first book. Which I’m very, very happy with. We get, for instance, a lot more insight into the Shuos faction, and a bit more into the Andan.
And so, for all it’s not an awkward second book of trilogy, it is doing the work of picking up after the first book and laying the ground work for the third. Just… not awkwardly.
The reason, however, that I ultimately settled on it being less good than Ninefox Gambit, is simply that it follows different characters. Or rather, the viewpoint characters are different. I absolutely loved being inside Cheris’ head/Jedao’s head, and their interactions were some of the things that made the first book so wonderful, and so I really missed them in their absence as viewpoint. There’s nothing wrong with the ones we get – Mikodez especially, as the head of the Shuos faction, is not an uninteresting narrator – but he just hasn’t quite got that dynamic with anyone that you got from Cheris and Jedao. Likewise, Brezan, our Kel person just… he’s not that interesting a person. I can see why he was chosen, and how the role he plays in the story makes him a good choice… he just doesn’t have a great character. We do also have a Kel general, though, who is pretty fun, so we get 1/3… Khiruev is by far my favourite, mainly because you get a lot of her internal conflict and thoughts about the government, in a way you miss out on with the others. It forms part of the exposition, and does it in a very neat, seamless way.
Speaking of the exposition, and… I guess slightly spoilery-ly? One of the things I really did like about this one, especially in complement to the first book, is that it shows you that not everyone is happy with the way things are run in the hexarchate. In Ninefox Gambit, it often felt like Jedao/Cheris vs. EVERYONE ELSE because somehow literally no one else inside the system thought the system was less than perfect. Sure, there were heretics, but they were so… othered… that they didn’t feel relevant or real? No one with a personality and a character and written so we cared about them objected to how things were. But not so here. We get to see that the dissatisfaction is wider than we originally thought… just no one felt, given how heresies are dealt with so effectively and often, that it was ever possible to do anything about it.
Which kind of leads me onto something else that I love about the series as a whole. I think possibly the cleverest thing Lee’s come up with is the Kel system of discipline – formation instinct. To have a soldier class who have been somehow infected with an inability to disobey orders is really cool. And Raven Stratagem explores that idea a bit further, the repercussions of it, and how it might not always work the way you want it to. It feels like such a small part of the worldbuilding in many ways – why would I look at that when I have no idea how any of the science works but it’s all so cool and kind of creepy – but it is just so… neat. And well thought out. Which characterises what I think of the series as a whole, to be honest. There’s been a lot of thinking clearly done not just on the worldbuilding – and it is a beautiful, original, interesting world that Lee builds – but on how to present and reveal that worldbuilding to show just how each thing does really connect and interact with the others, to build up a holistic view of something so utterly alien that nevertheless feels totally, plausibly real. The details pull it all together, habits and foods and bits of speech or fashion or childhood memories that feed into one another and tie the whole thing up.
That and the fact that Lee can really write and pace a story very well indeed.
Pretty much everything I loved about the writing in Ninefox Gambit remains true, and I do think Lee knows how to turn a phrase in a way many other current authors in SFF don’t. He just has the writing knack, and I love it. I’m sad his book hasn’t won any awards this year**, but I really hope this will change in future, and he’ll keep writing worlds and stories as fantastic as this. It is properly good, readable, well-written, modern SF, and it is something I need in my life.
*Part way through me writing this post, I found out the Hugo results, and alas, Ninefox Gambit did not win. Oh well.
**I’m probably going to post about my feelings on the Hugos soon.