Once again, I am going to try (perhaps unwisely) to review a book without reviewing its predecessors in the series! So be warned, I haven’t been able to do this without touching on some spoilers for earlier books.
I guess this is what you get by making ´This Is The End’ a bingo square.
As far as authors go, Yoon Ha Lee can be a bit of a cruel master. The way he treats his readers throughout the earlier books in his Machineries of Empire series reminds me of one those bare-bones swimming instructors. You know, one of the ones that think the best way to get you to swim is to just chuck you into the deep end, with the logic that if you’re desperate enough, you’ll find a way to keep to keep your head above water.
‘Yoon!’, the reader cries, while splashing around like a mad thing ‘Could you please throw over some floaties? An Inner Tube?’
‘A kickboard, please?’
‘C’mon, at least tell me how the calendar system works! I’m starting to sink here!’
*The author slowly extends a pool noodle, just within your reach.*
It’s dammed wet and slippery, but it’s all you have to grasp onto.
This was a little what reading NineFox Gambit felt like. The book was a wildly complex blend of military sci-fi and fantasy, and you’re only fed enough information to keep your head above water. As a first-time reader, I spent nearly as much time piecing together how the world works as I did following the plot. Some people enjoy this kind of challenge, and personally, I couldn’t praise the book highly enough.
So it’s a surprise to me that in the last book, Yoon has decided to throw us a lifeline. It’s as if the normal process of world-building has been flipped on its head. It’s the first book that gives you the least detail, and it’s the last one that decides to make the machinations of an empire clear. I suspect this decision was likely made so that the reader has a chance of understanding and appreciating the endgame when they finally reach it. It also gives the same feeling of satisfaction you might get from completing a particularly devilish jigsaw puzzle.
At the start of NineFox Gambit, the Hexacharte, the rulers of the six factions that control the empire, had co-opted the mathematically brilliant soldier Kel Cheris to help them win a crucial battle. To ‘aid’ her in this, they tethered the ghost of the genius mass murdering general Shous Jedao in her head. These battles are important because they’re all part of the Hexacharte’s fight against ‘calendrical rot.’
Why is this calendar so important?
Observance of a particular calendar helps dictate the rules of physics. If you follow the high calendar, everything works smoothly. But following a heretical calendar puts a spoke in the wheel of Hexarchate technology. The technology with the highest importance to the Hexarchate is the moth-drive, which is needed for faster than light travel. So it’s essential that this is kept running. But many of their weapons also rely on the correct calendrical system. If the Hexarchate wants to maintain control and good order, they have to stamp out heretics.
For everyone’s own good, they assure us. Nothing horrible underlying this at all.
But by the end of the previous two books in the trilogy, Cheris has turned against the Hexacharte, engineered its downfall, and vanished. While Cheris was the only point of view in the first book, we’ve never read anything from her since. So like everyone else, we’re unsure as to whether or not it was truely her or Jedao calling the shots when the old system fell.
Now nine years later, a number of Cheris’ old allies are trying to hold the new system in place. One of our points of view, Kel Brezan has found himself put into a position of power and is still feeling less than comfortable about it. Some of this is self-esteem; he’s essentially a trans man, and the Kel are not kind about this, but the fact his family did not join him in his rebellion hasn’t helped either. We also see a return of ex-Hexarch Shuos Mikodez, who has the ruthlessness and incestual tendencies of Cersei Lannister, but the wit and rapport of Tyrion. The fall of the other hexarchs has left him to fill much of the power vacuum left behind. It’s just a pity we don’t see as much of him here as we do in the previous book. Both he and Brezan are trying to form an alliance with a factional Kel group, freeing them to focus their energies on the common enemy.
One of the forces opposing them, the evasive Hexarch Nirai Kujen, has invested more than most into the old calendar system and is desperate to return to the status quo. Kujen runs hot and cold; sometimes he’s oddly affectionate, but then switches to be downright frigid. He’s a mad scientist with an anime pretty-boy facade; and he’s made himself a truly mad secret weapon in his plan to take back the empire – Jedao.
But it’s not the original Jedao. The last memories his Jedao has is that of a seventeen-year-old military cadet. This is Jedao pre-massacre, and he is horrified to find that everyone thinks of him as a mass murderer. People also expect him to have all the military expertise of his predecessor, leaving him running on pure instinct alone. Yoon uses new-Jedao to not only give us insight into old-Jedao, but Kujen too. Unbeknownst to the memory deficent new-Jeado, he and Kujen have an antagonistic history that goes back centuries. And this all ties back to the workings of the calendar.
But there’s someone else who does remember what Kujin has done – and that’s the ghost of old-Jedao. When Cheris/Jedao makes a reappearance, they don’t go seeking out help from their allies, nor do they fight the old high calander suporters directly. Instead, they make the rather opaque move of befriending one of Kujin’s service robots. Often overlooked as not true people, the servitors have made their own little society with their own culture (they LOVE soap operas), which exists in the background of not just Kujin’s base, but throughout the empire.
No one expects havoc to come from this quarter.
I mentioned earlier that Renevant Gun answers a lot of questions regarding both the world building and plot. You will learn more about the Hawk-moths. You will learn who’s there in Cheris’ head. You’ll even learn why Jedao killed so many people. But I dont want to give the impression that we’re only ticking off plot points and that there is no emotional pull in Revenant Gun. The question of identity runs strongly throughout the book; especially with both Jedaos and, to a degree, Kel Brezen. This also ties into what it takes to be seen as human. The ever present servitors are commonly dismissed because they seem nothing more than robots. New-Jedao, who can’t seem to ever to catch a break, is not seen as a complete person by most people around him (and then it gets worse.) And then there was Cheris’ own ethnic group, who was first dehumanised and then exterminated. If you’ve enjoyed how these themes work in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary books, or Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, there’s plenty more to explore here.
So hopefully after three books, we are finally allowed to swim. Yoon Ha Lee has shown himself to be a master of tricksy, puzzling but emotive Sci-Fi, even if he makes you work for your rewards. And as far as endings go, Revenant Gun manages to explain and tie off the trilogy in a bittersweet but gratifying way. If you’re the kind of reader willing to splash around without your floaties, please pick this series up from the start.
I just can’t help myself. There is a third Jedao in this book – someone named their cat after him.