Review – The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales

The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales25733384

By Yoon Ha Lee

Published June 2015

Score: 9.5/10

 

I purchased this collection after I first read Ninefox Gambit and then forgot about it. The Fox’s Tower is a collection of Yoon Ha Lee’s fairytale-inspired flash fiction, which is not my usual thing, but I love Yoon Ha Lee’s writing so much I felt compelled to give it a go and damn I am glad I did.

Flash fiction (stories around 1000 words long) is hit or miss with me. Some stories pack a big hit in a little package, others I just don’t get or wish there was more to them. This collection also had some misses, but even stories I didn’t get, I still enjoyed, because Lee is an absolute master of the format. Every word is carefully chosen for vibrant imagery, and some stories feel more like poems. Yoon Ha Lee is an amazing writer, and this collection shows off his skill.

The stories all had a fairytale/East Asian folklore feel to them, but I didn’t recognise any as retellings. Not that that is saying much, since I grew up with European fairytales. There were quite a few fox stories, as the name suggests, and as far as I know they keep to the mythology of the magic trickster fox. Most of the stories are also written as fables, and makes you think about their meaning. Each story has a lot going for it: message, meaning, worldbuilding and characters, and it’s amazing that everything fits and works together so well in such little stories.

Some stand out stories for me include The Stone-Hearted Soldier, The School of the Empty Book, The Fox’s Forest, The Youngest Fox, and The Firziak Mountains, even though I don’t drink tea. Seeing that little list I just made, I can think of many other stories that deserve praise, but then I may as well list nearly all of them. These stories contain a lot of magic, and a lot of wonder. They also contain mostly female characters, including women as soldiers and rulers. There are also many queer couples and characters who are either non-binary or whose gender isn’t revealed in this collection, which was nice to see.

My biggest complaint about this collection is that it does not come as a physical book. This collection would be perfect in a nice hardcover book that can be picked up and flicked through at any time. I got the next best thing by getting this collection on my kindle, but most of these stories can be viewed for free here on Yoon Ha Lee’s website, along with more of his flash fiction.

Whilst I’m on the topic of Yoon Ha Lee, I have just found out that the final book in his Machineries of Empire now has a title: The Revenant Gun. Every source I’ve found seems to indicate it’ll be out around June next year. I cannot wait to get back into that world.

 

~ Lauren

 

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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

 

Review – Ninefox Gambit

Ninefox Gambit26118426

By Yoon Ha Lee

Published 14th June 2016 (Solaris)

Score: 10/10

 

I wasn’t really expecting to love this book quite as much as I did. I’d seen it show up on new release lists for a while, but I just never felt that drawn in by the premise. Then after finishing The Telling I wanted to read a book released this year, and Ninefox Gambit was the first one that came to mind.

Gambit is right up my alley; military SF, which runs on Clarke’s Third Law (any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic) and the ‘show don’t tell’ method of storytelling. After reading the first chapter, I thought that Lee might have gone too far with this approach; I just could not wrap my head around how the technology of this future universe worked. We have an infantry division that can cause magical shielding effects or heat lances by marching in formation and enemy storm machines, both powered by different ‘calendars’.  The technology is totally alien, and only vaguely explained. I thought that this would prevent me from really appreciating this book, but there was something else I noticed straight away; this book is a visual masterpiece. We have an army within a storm shooting up banners made of holographic fire and drawing laser swords. How cool does that sound? I stuck around, and eventually the pieces of this future ‘calendar’ technology and the society that uses it began to fall into place.

At first, I was thinking of the calendar as what we would get if things like astrology and numerology were real and scientific and could be improved upon. We have broadcast nodes throughout the galaxy that allow the laws of reality to be changed in that section of space. The laws of the new reality are dependent on complex mathematical formulas, but you can’t just enter some numbers into a machine and change how the universe works. Your entire society must live those equations. Something as simple as soldiers standing in set positions to form a ‘magic’ formation, or an entire society observing remembrances and feasts at the same time. In this universe, the rituals, symbolism, and most importantly, the beliefs of the people are what makes the technology work.

Enter the Hexarchate. An interstellar civilisation completely dependent on this technology to function. This dependence dooms them to a constant state of war, since ‘heretic’ neighbours that use different calendars could impact how reality functions along the borders, so they have to be converted. The Hexarchate is also probably the most controlling dictatorship ever imagined; the beliefs of every citizen matter when it comes to maintaining the calendar, so every citizen must act in the proper way. The Hexarcharte is ruled by six factions, each tasked with maintaining the calendar by brainwashing the citizens and fighting the ‘heretics’ who stray from the norms needed for the calendar.

As you can tell, this is a complex story that asks a lot from the reader. There are big ideas, and a lot of room to misunderstand what’s happening. Some parts were quite confusing, and at the start, I didn’t think I’d love this book. Even as I got more into it, I thought the complexity would ultimately count against the story. However, I gave this story a 10/10. In the end, I don’t think the lack of explanation hurt the story at all. I can understand that trying to figure out the rules to this universe as you go might be a big turn off for some readers, but as I got more into the story I found it mattering less and less.

It helps that we have some very memorable characters to follow. We start with Cheris, an infantry captain with a gift for mathematics. She uses this gift to adapted her division’s formation to take advantage of a heretical calendar; which as you can imagine, is a big no-no even if it does prevents soldiers from being massacred. Rather than ‘re-educate’ her though, the Hexarchate decides to use Cheris’s skill to recapture the Fortress of Scattered Needles. To this end, she is implanted with the consciousness of Jedao, an undead general who never lost a battle, but slaughtered his own army. Obviously not the sort of person who can be allowed to live, but why waste such talent?

The relationship between the two is absolutely amazing to read about. Cheris is promoted to general for the mission, and Jedao becomes a mentor to her. A mentor who Cheris knows she can’t really trust; a mentor who has gone insane and killed millions before. Cheris also cares a lot about the soldiers under her command. She is used to fighting alongside her soldiers, and hates having to abandon them. Jedao however is more used to being a general, and is better able to make decisions on when they need to sacrifice soldiers. Cheris must rely on Jedao to help make these life and death decisions, without knowing whether he is a madman or a genius. The fact that they are always together (Cheris even sees Jedao when she looks in the mirror or at her shadow!) means their personal relationship inadvertently develops. And it doesn’t develop into a romantic relationship. Hallelujah!

Cheris and Jedao are both characters we come to deeply care about, and whilst no-one else is anywhere near as memorable as them, the supporting characters still feel quite real. During the middle of the book, while Cheris and Jedao are making decisions on what to do with their invasion force, we often cut to the action on the fortress where we see characters dealing with the decisions that Cheris and Jedao make. These characters are only ever shown in one scene each, but it really drives home that war isn’t a game of numbers; when you order people to their deaths, you’re ordering real people to die.

I also feel the need to point out that Lee is an amazing writer. His descriptions are so emotive; poetic without being too purple. Cheris comes across the remains of a battalion annihilated by an exotic weapon, and the remains are described like this;

“Feet scraped inside-out next to unblemished boots. Black-and-gold Kel uniforms braided into cracked rib cages. Gape-jawed, twisted skulls with eye sockets staring out of their sides and strands of tendon knotted through crumbling teeth. A book of profanities written in every futile shade of red the human body had ever devised, its pages upended over the battlefield from horizon to horizon.”

As you can see, Lee can write a very evocative sentence. More importantly, he knows when to get the fancy words out and when to take a more prosaic approach. The beautifully disturbing metaphors and similes pop up only where they work.

This book also has an interesting take on gender. No big deal is made of the fact that Cheris and Jedao are of different genders, and given that Cheris and Jedao share a body, it becomes interesting which pronouns are used by different characters in different scenarios. At this point in the story, most of the key characters seem to be female, but this is not to the detriment of the male characters. This story also takes a more nuanced approach to male rape victims than I’ve ever seen. I guess that’s not saying too much though, since it’s not a topic that’s brought up often. Oh yeah, trigger warnings for a rape scene in this book.

I love this book. The new Pokémon games came out just after I started reading it, and I often found myself reading this while I could have been catching them all, that’s how much I loved this book. But I understand that not everyone will be able to get into it. Ninefox Gambit is a book with fascinating ideas, wonderful characters, and a long hard look at the horrors of war. If you stick with it, you’ll take a ride in one of the most alien and thought-provoking worlds I have come across. But it isn’t an easy read. You are thrown into this world with no preparation, and it will take a while for the terminology to make sense.

I cannot wait until June next year, when the sequel; Raven Stratagem, is released. Looking forward to more calendrical rot. 

 

~ Lauren