Double Review – Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee and Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

 

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee & Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

Published 2017

Score: 10/10 for Both

After talking about this year’s Hugo nominees, I was excited to dive into not one, but two sequels to those books. First I read Raven Stratagem, the sequel to Ninefox Gambit, and then I immediately followed up it up with Seven Surrenders (Sequel to Too Like the Lightningon Audible. All I can say is WOW, both books are amazing, and reading them so close together made July probably my best month for reading. Both are 10/10 books for me.

I suppose I should be giving these books both separate reviews, but since I have already reviewed the previous books in both series I feel doing full reviews would see me repeating myself a lot.  I’ve also been a bit busy on my own writing, so I’ve had less time to do reviews.

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I’ll start with Raven Stratagem. Last year I gave Ninefox Gambit a perfect score, but warned that it was a book that didn’t explain much of the world and would require the reader to pay a lot of attention. The first thing I noticed about Raven Stratagem was that there was a fair bit of exposition at the start to explain the world. This worried me at first, even though it is standard practice for sequels to have that bit of catch up exposition for people who haven’t read the first one. I feared that some of the wonder of the world would be lost if Yoon Ha Lee started explaining everything as we went. I soon found my fears were unfounded. Once the obligatory second-book exposition was done it was all action, and I found I really liked having everything I’d learned from the first book confirmed and re-explained.

In Raven Stratagem, the crazy undead general Shuos Jedao, who is possessing the body of Captain Kel Cheris, captures a fleet, and we see how the Hexarchate scrambles to respond to this new threat. We have epic space battles, a range of interesting characters, and no idea just how things are going to go down until the end.

Whilst the first book dealt with one battle and really showed how war is hell and the toll fighting a war takes on individual soldiers. In Raven Stratagem we zoom out, and instead see how even without actively participating in a war, life in an oppressive regime can be hell. The Hexarchate has a faction called the Vidona, who are responsible for the public, ritualistic torturing of heretics. (For extra horror, the Vidona are also this civilisation’s schoolteachers.) At one point, the Hexarchate tries to get Jedao/Cheris to give up by committing genocide against Cheris’s ethnic group. After this declaration, we get a few snippets from the point of view of these innocent genocide victims who have played no role in the story, just to show that once again the decisions those in power make have a real impact on other people.

There is one issue that Raven Stratagem has that I can already see has divided people. In Ninefox Gambit, we saw the world mostly through Cheris’s eyes. Her relationship with Jedao was one of the highlights of Gambit, and after the end of that book, I was really eager to get back in their head and see how that huge ending had altered them, and how much of each one of them was left. However, Stratagem doesn’t give us this until near the end. This is understandable, since if we were in their head and knew what Jedao was planning, a lot of the suspense would be gone, but it is a dynamic that is sorely missed.

The upside though is that we get other viewpoint characters who give us a much wider view of the world. And damn the worldbuilding continues to be amazing. The culture of the Hexarchate has a very East Asian feel to it, going off the naming conventions, food, artworks, card games etc. In Ninefox Gambit we spent most of the story at the Fortress of Scattered Needles, so we were limited in how much of this galaxy we saw.

If you’ve read these books and want to know even more about the factions of the Hexarchate, there is a faction Cheat Sheet on both Yoon Ha Lee’s Page and on Solaris’s website.

Raven Stratagem was a perfect continuation of the series. At first, I thought it might be the end of the series, but I’ve been assured that this is a trilogy, and I will be looking out for any word on book 3.

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Now we get to Seven Surrenders. I enjoyed Too Like the Lightning; it was a unique story completely unlike anything I’ve read before. However, there were parts of Too Like the Lightning that I felt dragged on a bit, and there was a lot about the world and the characters left unexplained. I feel that Seven Surrenders fixes these issues, and delivers an impossible to put down ride. There is no catch-up exposition at the start; In universe, Seven Surrenders is Vol.2 of Mycroft Canner’s history, and therefore it is expected that you’ve read Vol.1. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend reading Raven Stratagem without reading Ninefox Gambit, I think doing so would be possible, though very confusing. Not so with Seven Surrenders; if you try to start here, you’ll have no idea what’s happening. Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders between them cover just seven days of plot and feature dozens of important characters.

Given that this book is an immediate continuation of Too Like the Lightning, most of the things I loved about it I’ve already talked about. The worldbuilding is great; we get shown those futuristic flying cars we’ve wanted for decades but we also see how they change the world. The big focus of the series is the politics of this new world, and as the story progresses and we see the conspiracies the rulers of this utopia have become involved in, we can’t help getting drawn into the plot. In Seven Surrenders, all these conspiracies begin unravelling at once and it is glorious to see.

We also get a better look at some off the characters. Our narrator Mycroft provides more information about why he did the horrible things he did, and we also discover the true nature of the enigmatic J.E.D.D Mason, which is quite a ‘Whoa, WTF’ moment. It’s really a testament to Ada Palmer’s skill that she can have so many memorable characters in one story. (Hell, she gets so many memorable characters in just one room, and it still works.)

This series discusses a lot of different ideas about religion, gender, and war. We see a peaceful world that hasn’t known war for 300 years, but throughout the series there is a dread that war might return to the world, and with the new technology and lack of experience, it’ll be the worst war ever known. This makes a lot of sense, and really made me think about the problems that come with maintaining peace for so long. I wasn’t so interested in the discussions on gender. This future society tries to avoid gendering people, and one of the characters tries to use society’s lack of experience with gender roles as a weapon. I’m not really buying that idea, and I also think it’s weird that all the ‘feminine’ social activities fall under the jurisdiction of just one of the Hives. But the discussion was done in an interesting way, and I didn’t feel like I was being preached at about the author’s views; this was just the way gender worked in this universe.

In short, Seven Surrenders was amazing. It wrapped up the stories quite well, whilst also setting the stage for the next pair of books, which will depict how this war will be thought.

2016 saw some amazing books, and already 2017 is proving to be just as good. I cannot recommend these two series enough; they just keep getting better.

And now that I’ve done that, I really need to read some of the older books that have been sitting on my shelf for a few years. Give them some love. At least until The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin comes out.

Happy Reading Everyone,

~Lauren

 

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Review – Too Like The Lightning

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By Ada Palmer

Published 10/5/2016 (Tor Books)

Score: 8

 

I didn’t really know what to make of this book at first. I saw this book everywhere last year, with a lot of people raving about it. I put it on my ‘to read’ list, but was a bit reluctant to read it. Nothing I’d heard about the story really grabbed me. Then when Too Like the Lightning got nominated for a Hugo, I found out that it wasn’t available on the kindle store on Amazon’s Australian site, so I ended up getting it as an audio book. I was a bit doubtful going into this story, but I have to say that I’m glad I finally read it. Too Like the Lightning is an intelligent, cool, and unique book, and I am now firmly committed to continuing the series.

Too Like the Lightning is a hard story to describe. It is listed as political science-fiction, but it doesn’t really fit into any mold I have come across. It is a story told by notorious criminal Mycroft Cannar about the seven days during which a long era of peace and stability came to an end. Mycroft chooses to tell this story in the style of an 18th Century memoir, and often breaks the fourth wall. The philosophies of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment also play a huge role in this story.

Most of this book was dedicated to introducing us to the world of the 25th Century and the incestuous political system that keeps it going, with the actual plot being rather slow. I feel it needed to be this way, because this future world is very complicated, very strange, and yet it is presented so well. The story follows two different threads; the theft of a valuable seven-ten list (a list that ranks the most powerful people in the world, and that has an impact on the future balance of power) and Mycroft trying to protect Bridger, a boy who can bring inanimate objects to life.

Yes, he can bring inanimate objects to life. This is why I find it so hard to put this book in a simple category; it is science fiction with flying cars and everything, but this inexplicable miracle adds a fantasy feel to the story. I loved Bridger and his toy soldiers so much. I would have liked to spend more time with them, but it is made clear that the story of the seven-ten list is the main story Mycroft has been made to narrate. I feel it is a bit unfair to judge the plot of Too Like the Lightning, since not much is resolved. Don’t get me wrong, we get enough answers, but Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders feel like two halves of the same book, and without reading Seven Surrenders, I feel I have an incomplete view of the plot.

This book does some very interesting things with gender. In this society, it is taboo to display gender, or refer to people with gendered pronouns. Our narrator Mycroft does gender people, however it is made clear that the pronouns he assigns other characters don’t necessarily correspond to their actual sex, but rather how Mycroft wants us to view said character. For example, the main antagonist is assigned male pronouns, though it is made clear that the character in question is a woman. It’s a fascinating way to look at gender politics, and the assumptions we make about people based on their gender.

I should also mention again that I didn’t technically read this book. I listened to it as an audiobook, narrated by Jefferson Mays. Considering this is my first audiobook, I can’t really say how good the narration was compared to other audiobooks, but I feel that Mays did an excellent job here. His narration drew me into Mycroft’s story, and I liked a lot of the character voices he did. I’m going to continue to get audiobooks after this; I didn’t think I’d be that big a fan of the format, but considering how much I drive, they actually work quite well for me.

All in all, Too Like the Lightning is a unique, intelligent book. In some places, it does feel like it’s trying too hard to be smart. There was a chapter where almost all the dialog was in Latin. Not like, in universe they were speaking Latin but we read it as English, we actually had to read the Latin. Between each line of dialog there was a translation, and it made the entire conversation drag on. The focus on the 18th Century and the Enlightenment was interesting, but it gave the story a very Eurocentric feel despite having a diverse cast and a lot of the action taking place in Chile. I suppose it doesn’t help that the Middle East has been mostly destroyed, a large part of Africa is a reserve, and most of Asia is represented by one faction. Whilst we’re talking about the story’s flaws, I should mention that some of the debauchery near the end felt a bit over-the-top.

But I’m still eager to continue this series. If you aren’t put off by the antiquated writing style and the minor flaws I just mentioned, then you’ll find Too Like the Lightning to be a fascinating book unlike anything else you’ve read before.

 

~ Lauren