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The Voyage of the Basilisk: around the world in 80 dragons

Book cover: The Voyage of the Basilisk - Marie Brennan (a sea serpent and a whale, illustration by Lady Trent)When you’ve stopped a war, been declared a traitor and jumped off a cliff on a dragon-bone glider, there’s little left to fear. But long sea voyages require capital, so it has taken Isabella a few years to prepare for her around-the-world trip. And this time she plans to take young Jake with her.

ADVENTURE FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY

The Expanse Read-along: Caliban’s War – Week 3

Tensions boil over as Avasarala finds herself bundled off to Ganymede on a luxurious space yacht and Jim confronts Fred about the protomolecule. As alliances finally become clear, it’s starting to be obvious who their friends really are – but can even friends be trusted?

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Top Ten Tuesday: re-reads

Top Ten Tuesday bannerTop Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created and hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, in which we talk about a bookish topic and have fun making lists. The official topic is on hiatus, but I’m borrowing a prompt from Nikki @ The Bibliophibian and gushing about re-reads.

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Raven Stratagem: choose wisely

Book cover: Raven Strategem - Yoon Ha Lee (spacefighters attacking a space station against a green sky)

Kel Cheris, half-possessed by the ghost of notorious General Shuos Jedao, survived an assassination attempt that wiped out her entire fleet. Or did she? Physical appearances aside, it appears to be Jedao who usurps command of General Kel Khiruev’s fleet. Formation instinct compels the Kel to follow Jedao – but will he really defend the Hexarchate from the Hafn? Or will he betray them to their deaths?

Ninefox Gambit was one of my favourite books last year with its unapologetically oblique world-building and its obsession with the ethics of war. In Raven Stratagem, the core dilemma is much the same – can Shuos Jedao be trusted? – but this time we are kept out of Cheris’s head, seeing the action strictly through outside eyes.

Enter General Kel Khiruev, tormented by her enforced loyalties to both the Hexarchate and to Jedao as her superior officer. Haunted by childhood memories of her Vidona mother executing her father for heresy, it’s only Kel formation instinct that suppresses her doubts about the Hexarchate. When Jedao arrives, she can’t resist the urge to obey him even knowing Kel Command wants him dead.

By contrast, Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan has weak formation instinct, giving him the freedom to rebel – albeit at the cost of his career, as the Kel hate and fear a crashhawk almost as much as they do Jedao himself. Ejected from the Hierarchy of Feasts as Jedao tightens his grip on the fleet, Brezan must try to make contact with Kel Command to apprise them of the situation – if he can persuade them to listen to a crashhawk.

With half the story set amongst the Kel and circling around the question of Jedao’s intentions, this could have felt awfully similar to Ninefox. Instead, Yoon Ha Lee breaks new ground, focusing tightly on questions of free will as Jedao relentlessly pushes Khiruev to make her own choices. Formation instinct – ironically, designed as a tool to control Jedao – can drive a doubting Kel to suicide to prevent disobedience. It’s heart breaking to watch Khiruev wrestle with its irresistible demands as well as those of her conscience, all the while followed by the mistrustful eyes of her officers, as torn between duty and desire as Khiruev herself.

Along the way, we get glimpses of the enemy Hafn – as monstrous as the Hexarchate – and the fault lines within the system as stations respond to Jedao’s presence: some desperate for the protection of the man who has never lost a battle; others desperate to kill the traitor who once slaughtered his entire command for reasons known only to himself. In the middle of it all, Jedao remains an enigma (and as a reader this extends to whether it is in fact Jedao, regardless of the assumptions made by the Kel), his cards kept close to his chest, a blend of sympathetic charm and remorseless authority.

To my joy, Yoon Ha Lee also takes a step back to give us a wider view of his dystopian empire – not just through Brezan’s eyes, but from the perspective of the Shuos Hexarch. Gleefully capricious, famous for murdering children, forgetful of his physical needs, Mikodez is a complex antagonist. He’s also utterly respectful of his non-binary administrative aide and devoted to his family (which hasn’t stopped him from asking his birth sister to transition to manform to become one of his many doppelgangers, deployed to distract assassins and attend meetings on his behalf). And as the Hexarchs debate ways to bring Jedao back into line, it’s Mikodez – the man who leads the spies and assassins – who is their unexpected (and unsuccessful) conscience.

Through Mikodez, we get to see the machinations of the Hexarchs first hand as they juggle their fear of an unfettered Jedao with their need to stop the Hafn – whilst proceeding with their own self-serving agenda to become immortal. If Ninefox explored the ethics of war, Raven is unflinching in its criticism of the ethics of power. We’re not meant to admire the Hexarchate or the Hexarchs, but I defy anyone not to like Shuos Mikodez in spite of themselves (for many of the same reasons I like Jedao himself, not least his wicked sense of humour).

Where Ninefox casually assumed technology and world-building, leaving the reader to flounder or fly with it, Raven casually fills in the background: the nature of the factions; the horror of the ritual torture that underpins the calendars (and by extension the technologies); the back-biting and jockeying for influence between the hexarchs; and the constant fear of rebellion that underpins it all. The Hexarchate persists by brutally suppressing all resistance; but almost every character we meet wavers in their loyalty to it.

…which brings us back to the motif of choice. Ultimately, the entire novel is a call to arms: to reject inhumane government; to resist wherever possible; to believe in a better world – and to be willing to sacrifice to secure it. Or even just to improve on the status quo.

“I wanted to die having seen that someone believed in a better world enough to fight for it”

It’s no more subtle in its gender politics. The Hexarchate may be a dystopia, but it is resolutely liberal in its assumptions around gender and sexuality, with routine polygamy, at least three trans characters, and an aromantic asexual. It’s singing straight to the choir as far as I’m concerned. And in the end – no matter how much you have come to despise the Hexarchs (and there’s little chance of sympathising with them, even as you wonder whether Mikodez is right in his assessment of Jedao) – they have the ability to surprise in their attitudes to their families and immortality.

Raven unlocks the plot that was revealed at the end of Ninefox, but I’m on the edge of my seat for the final instalment of the trilogy. It remains to be seen how the Hexarchate (and their enemies) will respond – and it’s not lost on me that while we’ve been given a teasing glimpse of mad genius Nirai Kujen, we still have no idea what he is actually up to (or whose side he’s on).

All in all, Raven is a triumphant continuation of a vibrant new space opera. I expected intrigue and entertainment; I wasn’t prepared for all the feelings. I can’t wait to see where Yoon Ha Lee takes this rollercoaster next.

****1/2

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Expanse Read-along: Caliban’s War – Week 2

As Holden and his crew search Ganymede to try and find Prax’s lost daughter, the negotiations on Earth stop abruptly. Although Avasarala is tempted to figure out who is pulling the strings – and why – she knows someone needs to keep an eye on Venus. She’s not wrong…

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Throwback Thursday: Moon Over Soho

Book cover: Moon Over Soho - Ben Aaronovitch (illustrated map of London)Credentials established, PC Peter Grant is settling into life in the Met’s supernatural policing division. But with both Lesley May and Thomas Nightingale on medical leave and corpses stacking up across Soho, how much trouble can Peter get into? ALL THE TROUBLE.

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The Expanse Read-along: Caliban’s War – Week 1

It’s been 18 months since the Phoebe incident, and the system has settled into an uneasy stand-off as Earth and Mars marshal their forces and try to avoid a shooting war. Holden and his crew are officially working for Fred and the OPA – and when something terrible happens on Ganymede, they’re the obvious choice to investigate…

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Yesterday: sometimes it’s better not to remember

Book cover: Yesterday - Felicia Yap (a jagged edge and a blood smear)What if you could only remember yesterday? How would you live? How would you love? How would you react if your husband was accused of adultery and murder? How could you uncover the truth? Would you trust yourself to record yesterday’s facts for tomorrow?

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Throwback Thursday: The Tropic of Serpents

Book cover: The Tropic of Serpents - Marie Brennan (an illustration of a dragon)Neither widowhood nor motherhood can distract Isabella Camherst from her dragons, but the politics of nations – and of the scientific fraternity – have delayed her expedition to Eriga. But nothing could prepare her for the Yembe court politics that greet her arrival. Will she ever get to study the Moulish swamp wyrms?

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Redux: June features more books than expected

June saw me move to the US for 2 months, which is the sort of major upheaval that can really interfere with reading and reviewing. However, living in a strange city is quite good for spending nights with a good book (in spite of my workload) and some trans-American flights have helped keep reviews trickling in. This may be less true in July, where workload is due to hit truly epic proportions.

Reading round-up, Stacking the shelves and goal progress

Shattered Minds: gotta stop the signal

Book cover: Shattered Minds - Laura Lam (An eye, the image fractured like glass)Carina Kearney is a gifted neuroprogrammer on a highly sensitive research project to record the lived experience: senses, feelings, memories. She’s also a cold-blooded killer. Scared of her urges, Carina embraces Zeal addiction instead, drowning herself in drug-induced sprees of virtual murder. But her mentor Roz has ambitions far beyond brain recording, and Carina is key to her success. How can Carina escape her in a near-future where any brain can be hacked? And can she ever escape herself?

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The Expanse Read-along: Leviathan Wakes – Week 4

Just when you think it’s all over, the post-human horror goes full planetbuster and shows the squabbling politicians what escalation really looks like. Pretty much nothing went as I expected in the final act of Leviathan Wakes, guaranteeing I’ll be back for more…

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