Liz Bourke reviews Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

Revenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris 978-1781086070, $9.99, 400pp, pb). June 2018. Cover by Chris Moore.

Revenant Gun is the third volume in Yoon Ha Lee’s (excellent) Machineries of Empire trilogy. It’s an untraditional sort of trilogy: while all of the volumes continue the same story, they do so with different approaches and different major characters. Where Ninefox Gambit, the first book, focused on Kel Cheris, a mathematically talented military officer in the autocracy known as the hexarchate, Raven Stratagem, the second book, involved a much wider cast of characters and never returned to Cheris’s viewpoint.

It’s impossible to talk about Revenant Gun without commenting on the events of the earlier books. Revenant Gun takes place a decade later, after Cheris’s success in her goal of overthrowing the hexarchate. Well, mostly success. The hexarchate’s successor states have been fighting each other on and off ever since. Cheris herself has apparently disappeared. Brezan, now the leader of the faction that has renounced the hexarchate’s calendar, has family on the other side, and complicated feelings about being left Officially In Charge. But he and General Inessar, the leader of the other faction, have finally agreed to meet to discuss stopping the killing. Inessar is prepared to make concessions, including renouncing the hexarchate’s calendar and its brutal sacrifices, in exchange for political power.

That’s one thread of this book. Another is that of the robot servitor Hemiola, who leaves its very isolated home enclave for the wider universe and finds itself in the middle of a plan to assassinate the person to whom it has always felt it owed allegiance: the hexarch Nirai Kujen, a genius and a tyrant. And yet another is Kel (now Ajewan) Cheris’s thread, as she tries to find and kill Kujen – in spite of certain complications.

But the main thread of Revenant Gun, its emotional heart, is Shuos Jedao. He remembers being a teenager, but he wakes up to find himself in the body of a grown man. He’s a general in charge of a hexarchate battlegroup, the most feared and reviled man in the known universe, and he has no memory of ever going to war. The troops under his command hate him for atrocities he can’t remember committing – and for what Nirai Kujen, the last surviving hexarch, has done to their previous commander. Kujen is friendly enough, but Jedao can see he’s an autocrat who expects obedience without question – and Kujen wants Jedao to re-conquer the disparate remains of the hexarchate, in order to reinstitute the hexarchate’s calendar, with its bloody celebrations.

In Lee’s Machineries of Empire, the calendar is part of a system of belief and action that creates exotic effects in terms of physics in the space where a particular calendar is applied. The hexarchate’s calendar requires bloody and torturous rituals to sustain it, and Kujen is so invested in keeping and restoring it because (so we learn) only under the hexarchate’s calendar can Kujen maintain his functional immortality: his ability to move bodies, which is something that he has inflicted upon Jedao as well.

As the story progresses, Jedao learns that he’s almost helpless – helpless to help the troops under his command, and nearly helpless to thwart Kujen’s ultimate goals, though he realises that he wants to. Meanwhile, Cheris has learned that there’s someone called Jedao leading Kujen’s forces and has determined, since she has yet to discover how to assassinate Kujen, to kill Jedao instead, while working on a trap that will make sure Kujen dies and stays dead: a trap that will require the commitment of large numbers of military personnel.

Jedao and Cheris are enemies by circumstance and the inability to communicate – ironically, considering their circumstances in Ninefox Gambit. But they’re united in their ultimate goals, despite their antipathy. That makes two extremely smart people who want to bring the hexarch down.

Revenant Gun is a fast, gripping story. Its shifting viewpoints – all seeing some part of the picture, none with a complete view or good insight into other people’s motivations – and potential for betrayals make it feel complex and demanding. At base, though, it’s a thriller crossed with a story about learning to live with consequences you didn’t choose. It’s a story in part about mortality: it holds a contrast between someone who wants to die and someone who wants to never die, and the costs, to oneself or to others, of taking those desires to extremes. Jedao, like Cheris, is an extremely compelling character – as is, somewhat to my surprise, the robot servitor Hemiole, whose naiveté and determination make an interesting comparison with the other, more jaded characters.

I really enjoyed Revenant Gun, and I sincerely hope that Lee has the opportunity to write many more novels. This is excellent space opera, and I wish there were more like it.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the June 2018 issue of Locus.

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