Review: Revenant Gun (Machineries of Empire #3) by Yoon Ha Lee

I recently read Hexarchate Stories, and realised how much I’d forgotten about the events of Revenant Gun. Of course, reading Revenant Gun reminded me of how much actually happened in the preceding two books, so it’s taking all my willpower to read new books instead of just re-reading the series from the beginning.

That ramble was supposed to be an introduction to this, my review of the third book in an incredible series that I whole heartedly recommend, though you definitely need to start at the beginning (book one is Ninefox Gambit).


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I feel like this cover isn’t impressive enough for the book, I think it looks like it belongs to a simple space adventure type of novel, and doesn’t do justice to the grand, sweeping nature of the series

THE STUNNING CONCLUSION TO THE MIND-BENDING SERIES.

DEATH AND NEW BEGINNINGS

Shuos Jedao is awake…. and nothing is as he remembers. In his mind he’s a teenager, a cadet—a nobody. But he finds himself in the body of an old man, a general controlling the elite forces of the hexarchate, and the most feared—and reviled—man in the galaxy.

Jedao carries orders from Hexarch Nirai Kujen to re-conquer the fractured pieces of the hexarchate on his behalf. But he has no memory of ever being a soldier, let alone a general, and the Kel soldiers under his command hate him for a massacre he can’t remember committing.

Kujen’s friendliness can’t hide the fact that he’s a tyrant. And what’s worse, Jedao and Kujen are being hunted by an enemy who knows more about Jedao and his crimes than he does himself…

I found myself thinking at various times that the pacing of this series is odd, not least because characters are still getting introduced and developed in the third book. High school debates hammered in the fact that you shouldn’t introduce any new information in your conclusion, and I suppose this gets carried over to a lot of media, and probably explains why so many movies that end a sequence and final seasons of a tv show are disappointing. It also explains why even though Revenant Gun isn’t what I expected, it’s a good book in its own right (I got to the point eventually!).

By having characters like Protector General Inessar getting introduced and fleshed out even in the last novel, Yoon Ha Lee adds to the realistic and immersive feel of the series. It feels like reading an (unusually entertaining) authentic history of events. The politics that manipulate events, and ultimately control the players that the general public than lauds or blames for events are startlingly realistic, because somehow this book perfectly captures the contradictory nature of… humanity, I suppose. That makes it sound very highbrow and inaccessible, but Jedao is a hilarious, sarcastic disaster, and you get amazingly quotable snippets like this—

“You’re not supposed to spend on frivolous shit, but what good is life without some frivolous shit?”

Or this—

“The presence of atrocity doesn’t mean you have to put your life on hold. You’ll arguably be better at dealing with the horrible things you have to witness, or even to perpetrate, if you allow yourself time to do the small, simple things that make you happy. Instead of looking for ways to destroy yourself.”

So it all evens out.

We learn a little bit more about Jedao in this book, but mainly his character just gets reinforced. Revenant Gun cuts through the history and the perception of Jedao tainted by hundreds of years of war crimes, and shows that at his core, Jedao just knows and cares about people. All of his actions, right or wrong, stem from this. He is an excellent strategist and leader because he never forgets that the people he’s fighting are people, who get tired and hungry and scared. Jedao likewise never forgets that the people he leads are people, who need reassurance, and stress relief and someone to step up and take responsibility. It’s also his biggest flaw, because he gets blinded to the larger impact his actions have, allowing people like Kujen and Mikodez, who are seemingly incapable of empathy, to manipulate him into atrocities that he feels all the deeper because of his incredible empathetic capacity.

Cheris and Brezan don’t get much page time in Revenant Gun, and I can’t help but wish we learnt more of Cheris’s actions in the substantial time gap written into the book. Mikodez likewise had a much smaller role than he had in Raven Stratagem, and I would have liked to know more about the impact that the calendrical shift (and the reason for said shift) had on Mikodez specifically. There was also a very promising subplot introduced with BrezanSPOILER that I also wanted to see explored further, but it is my fervent wish that this occurs in forthcoming novels, because I understand that for reasons of length, some ideas probably had to be cut down.

I enjoyed the contribution of the servitors in this book, and the interesting and again, comparison welcoming horror that the characters face when something they had written off as a mere tool express opinions contrary to those of their masters. If there was an award for sassy robot companion, it would have to go to 1491625, even if I did have to copy and paste its name because I can never remember it. Hemiola’s larger than expected role in the book was a great way to explain things without infodumps, and I loved the personalising touches given even to the robots in this series. The idea of Hemiola editing together a Kujen fan video made me cry-laugh and wish I knew how to make videos, because I need dancing courtesan Kujen in my life.

The real star of this book though isn’t any of the servitors. If Ninefox Gambit was about Cheris, and Raven Stratagem was about Jedao, Revenant Gun is the book of Kujen. In the previous books Kujen was a mysterious figure, but in Revenant Gun he gets dragged from the shadows. I was unhappy when I thought one development discovered at roughly the midpoint of the book was all the explanation we would receive as to the reasons for Kujen’s (rather extreme) actions throughout the series. Fortunately, this was not the case, and Kujen’s motivations by the end of the book are as clearly motivated as Jedao or Cheris’s. I can’t help but wish that the almost throwaway additional explanation wasn’t included in the novel, as it cheapens the character development later done to explain noticeable quirks of Kujen’s.

The world building in the Machineries of Empire series remains outstanding, with fully realised thematic symbolism, most of which probably missed because I read mainly for character development and interactions, and miss a lot of subtleties1.

Calendrical warfare and the manipulation of the calendar comes to the forefront in Revenant Gun, and there’s a lot of interesting moments that highlight the ultimate irrelevancy of seemingly significant people when looking at things on a historical scale. That’s not to say those people and their choices don’t matter—they do, but the choices they make lead almost inevitably to the same kinds of outcome. Yoon Ha Lee does an amazing job of presenting this seemingly contradictory idea in a way that doesn’t undermine the narrative tension of the book, and for that I applaud him. Just trying (and probably failing) to explain the idea that I just described sent me into a waffling ramble that included Alexander Graham Bell and the other guy that invented the telephone, that I edited out because even by my standards it was wandering (you’re welcome).

Calendrical warfare is essentially propaganda—the manipulation of people’s belief and significant imagery. The very fabric of the world Yoon Ha Lee has built is social commentary and satire, and it’s done impeccably. It almost reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s writing, where the interactions the characters have can be ridiculous, but they flow so logically from the world they exist in that the ridiculous nature of the system can’t help but become clear. When you realise the parallels between the world of the Machineries of Empire series and our own world, then, the problems that exist in both are obvious. That explanation seems muddled, so I’ll just give you an example from the book.

“All across the hexarchate were people like his older sister: loyal citizens, decent people in their day to day lives, many of whom had benefited even from a system that ran on regular ritualized torture. He’d been one of them once, or liked to think he was. Those were the people he had to reach. He might as well start with the hardest audience of all.”

While on the surface that seems like a very in-world specific statement, it’s actually a great way to think of privilege, in any of its many forms. I’m not going to start listing specific comparisons here, because that’s guaranteed to offend, oh, everyone; but the idea is one worth thinking about. If you had to take full responsibility for the choices made by the leaders or majority of any group you are a part of, would you be happy to? How content are you with your choices? Is the current system one that allows you to choose which groups you’re a part of, and if it doesn’t, why are you allowing that to stand? Are you happy to take responsibility for your actions or inaction? When issues inevitably arise, will you step up to fix them?

Revenant Gun is full of uncomfortable questions like that, whether that’s a good thing or not I suppose is up to you, but I also don’t think it’s hyperbole to say this book could make you a better person.

The conclusion of this novel, and the series, is poetic, satisfying and unhappy enough to seem realistic. A lot of loose threads get tied up in this book, but (as Hexarchate Stories elegantly displayed) Revenant Gun introduced plenty of complications and potential for developments itself, while satisfactorily resolving the main series plot lines. I have to end this review before I write for another two hours, but if any of the ideas or themes I mentioned are interesting to you, definitely read the Machineries of Empire series, you won’t regret it.

 

1 If you didn’t know that already I guess, sorry? My reviews probably won’t help much if you’re looking for books that have elegant metaphors and layered themes. I read for the snark and tropes, babie!2

2Misspelled for comedic effect

 

 

SPOILER WARNING, CONTINUE READING AT YOUR OWN RISK

 

 

SPOILER I mean the corpse calligraphy, but also his engagement I guess

 

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