Friday 25 January 2019

Machineries of Empire trilogy, by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit is the first volume of Yoon Ha Lee's SF trilogy, Machineries of Empire. It comes well recommended, winning the 2017 Locus Award for best first novel, and nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards. One reviewer summed it up as "Starship Troopers meets Apocalypse Now", which sounded intriguing. The story is set in a far distant (in time and/or space) universe, in a culture called the hexarchate which has some strange political/religious structures and military tactics. There's a lot that's new to absorb, and the author doesn't coddle the reader with any of the established ways of explaining what all of the new terms and concepts mean – he plunges straight into the story and lets the readers try to figure out what's going on. This can actually take quite a long time; I certainly wouldn't want to be asked to explain some of the more challenging aspects of the background, even just after finishing the book.

Despite being more or less confused most of the time, I was sufficiently intrigued to persevere. The heroine, Captain Kel Cheris, is a likeable soldier with a talent for mathematical analysis that makes her a tactical genius in the science of space warfare, and she is given the job of master-minding a counterattack against heretics who have seized an important base. To help her, she is saddled with a passenger in her head: the personality of Shuos Jedao, a famous general who won every battle he fought until he apparently went homicidally insane, killing his troops as well as the enemy's. His mind had been put in storage for four centuries (becoming a "revenant"), only being let out and transferred to an "anchor" (host) when really needed.

By the end of the story it is clear that there is a lot more going on than the reader (or the heroine) has previously realised, and I obtained the two sequels (Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun) and read them as soon as possible before I entirely lost my shaky grasp of Lee's universe.


Raven Stratagem begins where Ninefox Gambit leaves off, but with an important difference: while the original volume has the focus very much on Kel Cheris as the main viewpoint character, in the sequel the viewpoint switches between various characters and we only see Cheris – who now appears to be totally dominated by Jedao – through the eyes of others. There is a reason for this, as is revealed towards the end of the book.

The pace of the action is slower, but we learn rather more about the curious structure of the society in which these stories are set. There are six factions within the hexarchate society: Rahal, who set the law; Vidona, who provide education and enforce the law with ritual tortures; Kel, the military wing who suppress the frequent rebellions and deal with attacks from cultures outside the hexarchate; Nirai, the engineers and technicians; Andan, who provide financiers, diplomats and artisans; and Shuos, who specialise in information operations and also provide the overall political leadership of the hexarchate. Each faction is led by a hexarch, and the whole social structure is underpinned by a philosophical/religious belief system linked to clocks and calendars (don't ask – I still don't know). Apart from the humans, there are also servitors: robots of various forms with a high level of artificial intelligence, who ironically form some of the more sympathetic characters later in the story.

The three main viewpoint characters are General Kel Khiruev, in command of a Kel swarm (fleet) which is peremptorily commandeered by Cheris/Jedao; Colonel Kel Brezan, who resists this take-over and is promptly evicted from the swarm and sent back to Kel Command; and Mikodez, hexarch of the Shuos faction and effectively the emperor of the hexarchate. On the face of it, the commandeered swarm is focused on defeating a Hafn swarm which has invaded the hexarchate, but (as usual) there is more than this going on, and by the end of this volume we learn the full implications of Jedao's long-term strategy.


Revenant Gun is the final part of the Machineries of Empire trilogy.  Some spoilers are necessary to say anything much about this.

The structure of this volume is rather confusing, as it hops between events immediately after the end of those in the previous volume, and the situation nine years later. To make matters worse, we have two different versions of Jedao; one of them still associated with Kel Cheris, the other having been re-created by the villain of the piece who has emerged as Hexarch Nirai Kujen, who is also a revenant and achieves immortality by hopping from one "anchor" to another as they age. The author doesn't help by referring to both versions as "Jedao" for much of the time.

There is much more about "calendrical warfare" and the importance of religious observances (including brutal blood sacrifice) in preserving a particular structure of time which supports the functioning of certain weapons and hinders others. No, I can't explain it any better because I still don't understand what the author had in mind.

I have to say that it took me some time to finish this book in my evening reading sessions, because I kept falling asleep. This is not a good sign; if a book really grips me I can carry on reading for half the night without feeling sleepy.  Eventually I managed to finish it (with some relief) and I'm pleased to say that the eventual fates of the principal characters proved satisfying.

Overall, I would say that the Machineries of Empire trilogy is very ambitious but its reach exceeds its grasp, in that important aspects of it remain unintelligible – to me, at any rate. As a result I am unable to join the enthusiastic chorus which has welcomed the arrival of this trilogy.

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