Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

It’s an odd couple story in a Warhammer-40K-like universe.

Kel Cheris, infantry captain, gets too creative winning a battle for her empire. She’s punished with a special mission: recapture the Fortress of Scattered Needles, which has been taken over by heretics. Shuos Jedao, the ghost of a general who massacred his own army 400 years ago, will be stapled to her to advise.

The best part of Ninefox Gambit is the dynamic between Cheris and Jedao. Is Jedao lying? What does he want? The book makes you want to like a mass murderer and feel guilty about it at the same time as we get seduced along with Cheris.

Jedao does have something in mind, and he’s suffering from the fallacy of sunk costs something fierce. Can the ends possibly justify the means in this case? Has he been punished enough for what he’s done?

Another highlight is their magic system and the ethical dilemmas it brings up. Cheris’s people are utterly dependent on mothdrives and other exotic technologies that run on strict adherence to a calendar and ritual torture of heretics. They don’t dare let the system change because it might get even worse. How can a person possibly do the right thing in that situation?

Raven Stratagem deals with the aftermath of the Scattered Needles battle. The book examines the world’s magic system in more depth, and while good, it’s just not as incredible as Ninefox Gambit. It’s told from neither Cheris’s nor Jedao’s point of view, so we miss out on their interaction, which was the best part of Ninefox. Also Yoon Ha Lee has expended most of his plot twist ammo already. In the third act of Raven Stratagem Lee wraps up an awful lot of plot awfully fast, which makes me wonder whether these books will be a trilogy after all.

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