Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee
I received this book as an e-arc from Rebellion Publishing in exchange for an honest review, for which they and Yoon Ha Lee have my undying gratitude.
Revenant Gun, or, as I like to call it, Ninefox’s Eleven, is the third in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, which began with Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem. If you haven’t read those books, be warned that what follows is going to spoil them pretty thoroughly, although I’m going to avoid spoilers for Revenant Gun itself. I highly recommend putting down this review and picking up Ninefox if you haven’t already. Even if you have read the first two books, Revenant Gun launches straight back into the plot with very little recap, so it would benefit from being read straight after a reread – although my distinctly average memory for plot caught up within a few chapters, so it’s not a necessity.
In-universe, the book actually picks up nine years after the events of Raven Stratagem, with the remains of the Hexarchate divided between the Compact, running on the revised and distinctly more liberal calendar set up by renegade soldier Cheris, and the Protectorate, which aims to uphold the old system. Each of these factions is effectively being led by one of the Kel soldier faction: the Compact has our old friend and rebellious “crashhawk” Brezan (with the leader of the Shuos faction, Mikodez, in the background); while the Protectorate is being run by a senior general. Cheris herself, having revealed that her “takeover” by disgraced genius general Shuos Jedao’s personality was not as complete as everyone assumed in Raven Strategem, has disappeared, leaving the Compact effectively alone in defending her new calendar. Also in the mix is the functionally immortal secret-Hexarch Nirai Kujen, the architect of basically every awful technology in the galaxy, who is about to unleash his secret weapon: another iteration of everyone’s favourite disgraced genius general…
New Shuos Jedao is, on the surface, a rather odd introduction, because this version has no memories beyond being seventeen, despite being born into a body with the age and alleged capabilities of his much older self. Turning the enigmatic, all-knowing general of the last two books into a naïve POV character in the third act (indeed, he’s the most used POV for what I believe is the first time in the novels) feels like a big risk from a narrative standpoint, but it ends up working on multiple levels. It fits in thematically with the other ways the trilogy has played with personal identity as well as leting the book explore the weight of Jedao’s actions from a new, heartbreaking angle (although thankfully it doesn’t spend too long going over Candle Arc), and the mechanics of his resurrection also fit neatly with the foregrounding of some of Kujen’s other technological horrors, particularly the creation of the Moth spaceships.
For me, however, the most effective result of baby Jedao was the introduction of a character with the urgent and visceral knowledge that the Hexarchate’s society is unnecessary and wrong. As an audience, we are aware at this point that the Hexarchate has become progressively more brutal and oppressive since his original lifetime, to the point where an entire ruling faction – the Kel – are now brainwashed into mindless obedience and the very basis of technological progress and social cohesion is likely to fall apart if they don’t conduct regular ritual torture sacrifices. Plenty of other characters also believe this is wrong, and the older iteration of Jedao (and later Cheris) also has memories of things being different, the vast majority of time we are seeing events from the perspective of characters who have never known anything different and have no sense of what the alternative would even look like. Young Jedao embodies the shift in narrative from the hopeless fight against an awful system with no clear alternative in the first two books, to a world where of course things don’t have to be done that way, because all he knows it a reality where they weren’t. Even without the details of the new calendar system which makes this revised reality possible (details which would be meaningless to the audience anyway), young Jedao does a lot of work in making the new perspective in this time skip plausible.
In terms of action and worldbuilding, Revenant Gun builds very well on the existing work done in the previous two books: if you liked those, you’ll like this. Alongside young Jedao, we also spend significant amounts of time with Brezan and Cheris, and while I was disappointed to not have POV chapters from the latter, we instead get her story through Hemiola, a Nirai-aligned servitor who ends up following them from a space station, who is a very welcome addition. Like Raven Stratagem, there’s not as much focus on the space-magic battle mechanics as there was in Ninefox, which I still miss, but I accept that the story has grown past those scenes and the wider focus on revolutionary change, as well as the continuing glimpses of life outside the top military and political echelons, are interesting in their own right. There’s also a strong presence from the servitors – the effectively invisible robot workers of the Hexarchate – and honestly I could read a series of just soap opera-loving robots (I mean I am, thanks to Martha Wells, but I could read one written by Yoon Ha Lee as well). Disappointingly my most pressing question about Servitor Hemiola, and whether she gets to watch the last two seasons of A Rose in Three Revolutions, was left unanswered, but perhaps this is making room for a sequel.
Despite throwing me in the deep end in terms of plot recall, Lee’s style makes this a very easy and enjoyable read once you’ve recalled all of the terms and factions. I certainly wouldn’t mind a handy glossary and character list in future editions of the books, but I did well enough on my own. With the landing successfully stuck, this series has firmly entrenched its spot on my favourite space operas, and I’m very glad I stuck out those first mildly confounding chapters of Ninefox Gambit to make it this far.
My rating: Nine gambiting foxes out of Eleven*