Bite-size Books: Extracurricular Activities

Book cover: Extracurricular Activities - Yoon Ha Lee (A manform with their back to you ascends some stairs, staring off at an angle against a background of pink carp painting or wallpaper)A Shuos graduate is rare in Kel command, but Shuos Jedao has earned his stripes. Still, his latest assignment is a mission better suited to his former career: go undercover in a rival empire to rescue a captured ‘trade’ vessel captained by a former classmate.
This is a fun novelette set in Shuos Jedao’s early career: not yet a general, but already a seasoned officer with instincts honed by his years as an assassin for the Shuos. He’s a little concerned about his latest promotion until the price becomes clear: work better suited to a Shuos than a Kel. Jedao was never brilliant undercover – he’s better at judging sight lines and appropriate ordinance to achieve a hit than at staying in character – but when it comes to devious thinking and violent improvisation, he’s a natural.

As a sort-of precursor to Ninefox, Extracurricular Activities isn’t a brilliant introduction to the series. The tone is much lighter-hearted (don’t expect searching social/moral quandaries) and the bulk of the action takes place outside the Heptarchate (which will only be a Hexarchate by the time of Ninefox Gambit). Even the portions that take place on the Kel special forces ship could be almost any universe – the usual Kel traits are deliberately cast aside in favour of casual, flippant relationships that fit their cover story.

On the other hand, this means it’s an absurd amount of fun. Jedao is the fish out of water for once, uncomfortable with having an attractive subordinate flirting outrageously with him (and fanning the flames by making contingency plans that revolve around large quantities of lubricant). His supreme confidence isn’t matched by effortless competence once undercover, either – turns out his language skills aren’t up to scratch, and his appreciation of cultural nuance leaves much to be desired too. Just as well he excels at unarmed combat.

That said, I struggled to reconcile this Jedao with either the younger Jedao or ghost Jedao of Ninefox Gambit; and I suspect I’d have given the story less scrutiny if it had simply been a tale of the Hexptarchate with no familiar characters. I also have a problem with characters who miss the obvious, especially when they’re highly intelligent and specifically trained to notice minor details – so the running gag that Jedao couldn’t figure out why the Gwa An were giving him funny looks didn’t quite work for me (although I enjoyed the pay-off with the hair pins).

Read on its own merits, this is breezy, knock-it-back space opera – sit back and enjoy the ride. For those hoping to learn more about the setting, there’s some in-passing commentary about competing galactic philosophies (where the Heptarchate is calendrical, the Gwa An Reality is poetic. TELL ME MORE), but little else. Well, other than entertainment. I’m not going to knock that!