Revenant Gun – A Puzzle In Reverse

81s4snnvywlThis year closes out one of the most original and batshit crazy series I have ever read, The Machineries of Empire, by Yoon Ha Lee. The final book in the trilogy (I assume), Revenant Gun, wraps up our current story impressively well. If you haven’t read the first two books you should, and you can find their reviews here and here. The running theme in the series so far is having absolutely no idea what is happening in the book, but still having a good time anyway. I would say I understood approximately 10% of what was happening in The Ninefox Gambit, and maybe 20% in The Raven Stratagem. This is switched up in Revenant Gun, as Lee open the floodgates of knowledge and everything that has happened in the series becomes clear and understood.

I have already seen a few reviewers complain about this dynamic shift in Revenant Gun. They feel that a large part of Machineries’ charm is being completely lost, and don’t like that the third book pulls back to curtain and shows you how everything works. I feel the opposite. Machineries’ to me is a narrative masterpiece where Lee somehow found a way to do all the world building in the back third of the series, and make it work. His decision to show us how his tech works didn’t detract from its wonder, but instead shows that there was a method to the madness all along and helps provide context to appreciate the earlier books more. It also creates a weird reading experience, where I only understood the beginning of a series after I had read its end, and I always value weird reading experiences.

As for the quality of Revenant Gun, it still has all the good things that made its predecessors great. Strange characters with a lot of personality and depth to fall in love with, an exciting military plot that somehow feels brilliant despite you not understanding why it is, and a cool world with odd technology that makes you want to unlock its secrets. The plot follows a final stand off between all the parties that have been established in the previous books, as the three factions all look to defeat the others.

There was only one real negative in the book and that is there is simply not enough screen time of the best character: Mikodez. The perspectives that the book follows are spoilers, so I won’t announce them, but suffice to say none of them are Mikodez and I am outraged. Lee, you can’t just give us one of the best POV ever in book two and then take him away from us in the final book. I need my fix. Really though I don’t have anything negative to say about Revenant Gun, it was a very solid book.

If you liked the other two books, you will like this one. If you are a holdout on this series, you now know it ends strongly and should definitely pick it up. Revenant Gun, and The Machineries of Empire, and some of the best science fiction books in the last decade and will likely make it into my all time favorite books. You are doing yourself a great disservice by not reading this weirdness, go check it out.

Rating:
Revenant Gun – 9.0/10
The Machineries of Empire – 9.0/10
-Andrew

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Thrawn-Right at Holmes in the Star Wars Universe

mt5s45ejdm9xWhen I wouldn’t stop gushing to The Quill to Live’s Book Tyrant about my excitement to read a new canonical book in the Star Wars universe about Grand Admiral Thrawn, the aptly named Thrawn by Timothy Zahn, our Tyrant calmly informed me how pleased he was that I could write another review for the blog. I’ll start with a brief overview of the Thrawn saga for those that are unaware: after Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise, they took the entirety of expanded universe media and declared them all null and void in their current canon. Only the movies, TV shows (Clone Wars and Rebels), and future books would be within official Star Wars canon. This was devastating for many of us who grew up on the Thrawn Trilogy (which I have already reviewed here). We hated to see one of the best villains of all time removed from the Star Wars universe. Luckily, Disney didn’t let Thrawn languish in non-existence for long, and added him as a character in Season 3 of Rebels, in addition to approaching Timothy Zahn with an offer for him to author a canonical origin story of his beloved villain. After reading it, I held off on putting my review together until I could watch the Star Wars: Rebels television show, and this turned out to be a worthwhile endeavor for reasons I will explain shortly. For now, let’s get into the meat of the review.

Thrawn delivers a hearty dose of nostalgia for everyone who grew up on the original Thrawn trilogy, while also providing a solid introduction for new fans coming from the Rebels show. We get to see how Mitth’raw’nuruodo (if you can pronounce that correctly on your first try I’ll give you a cookie, or maybe some blue milk) first ‘meets’ the Empire and begins his surprisingly meteoric rise through the ranks of the Imperial Navy. He does this through a combination of brilliant deduction and devious execution of strategy. Each chapter focused on Thrawn feels very much like a look into the mind of a militaristic Sherlock Holmes as he navigates his way through the politics of the Empire and matches his will against the criminal mastermind Nightswan (a la Moriarty). Thrawn’s even got himself a Watson in Ensign Eli Vanto, the second of three POVs in the story. Vanto takes the place of Captain Pellaeon from the original Thrawn Trilogy as the man Thrawn has decided to mentor and take under his wing. It’s quite enjoyable to have an outside viewpoint from which to watch Thrawn, and Vanto is easy to cheer on throughout the book. Vanto is an intelligent and friendly Imperial Ensign who just wants to be in charge of organizing supplies for the navy. Instead he is pulled into Thrawn’s wake, and learns more about strategy and warfare than he ever thought he would. The best part about this is that we get to learn and struggle right alongside him in his chapters. Zahn does a great job of using Vanto’s chapters to keep you in suspense as Thrawn executes his plans. The last POV is from Arihnda Pryce, whom I will talk about later.

Timothy Zahn is quite gifted at writing a book that feels like Star Wars. His original trilogy probably goes a little too far with the constant flashbacks to scenes from the movies, but every minute you are reading it you are whisked to a galaxy far, far away. That same sensation is back in Thrawn, but this time around Zahn has added some flair. Each chapter starts with a quote from the Grand Admiral that would be right at home in The Art of War. Each quote references a stratagem or piece of wisdom that Thrawn uses or sees used in the upcoming chapter. I love little teasers like this, and these were done really well in this book. One issue I had with writing, however, was in the Thrawn POV chapters. There were too many lines of Thrawn’s internal Sherlock Holmes at work. He would constantly be noting the change of people’s breathing and the size of their pupils. It felt exactly like the scenes from the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes television show, but in book form and didn’t quite convey the same fun ‘brilliant mind at work’ sensation I got from Sherlock.

There was one other aspect of the book that bothered me. The character Arihnda Pryce felt like she was shoehorned into the story, and at first I couldn’t figure out why. She is an unlikeable villainous protagonist, willing to sacrifice almost anything and anyone for more power, and her character didn’t feel like it belonged in the story as an ally to Thrawn. Her chapters were only tangentially related to Thrawn’s story, and seemed mostly to serve to build up her own backstory. I was very confused as to why so much effort was being put into building up a new character I had never heard of before. However, I then watched up to Season 3 of Rebels where Thrawn is introduced simultaneously with Governor Arihnda Pryce. Aha, there she is! I still feel that Pryce didn’t truly belong in Thrawn, but now I understand that Disney was trying to get a two for one deal on backstories.

Overall, this is a fantastic addition to the new Star Wars canon, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see Thrawn back in action. It is great to see Timothy Zahn bringing his engaging writing and storytelling back into the Star Wars universe. And while Thrawn shares a very large number of similarities to the stories of Sherlock Holmes, they manifest into an exciting origin story for one of Star Wars’ greatest characters. Whether you are a long-term expanded universe fan, or coming in having only seen Star Wars: Rebels, The Quill to Live heartily recommends you pick up Thrawn.

8.0/10

The Ninefox Gambit – Take a Chance on Me

9781781084496_custom-670793563aa4d0d709c7000cd24d2fb6ac956c2c-s300-c85One of my favorite fiction tropes is the master strategist – the military general who is a super genius and has all the answers. It is always fun (probably because I am projecting) to see someone trounce everyone around them just using their mind and a good plan. Examples of this include the famous Thrawn from Star Wars (who has a new book this month), Artemis Fowl from the series named after him, and of course the popular Ender from Ender’s Game. The Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee, brings a new entry to the category with Shuos Jedao. Jedao, and his handler Cheris, need to tackle an impossible military challenge in a fascinating and confusing world. So if you like the idea of a tactical master raised from undeath, and chained to a handler, to be used as a weapon in a galaxy spanning conflict where a person’s spirituality and beliefs bend reality around them – you might want to read on.

Before we get any further, I want it understood that Ninefox Gambit is confusing as all hell (intentionally). If you are uncomfortable not knowing what is going on, or don’t like it when authors don’t explain every detail of their world – you will not like this book. Yoon explains only the barest minimum of his world to the point where you will understand that something important is happening, but you often won’t know what it is or why it’s important. However, in this instance – it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The book is exciting, and even when you have no idea what is going on the tone is masterfully manipulated so that you get excited anyway. Yoon uses an immense amount of terminology that you have to work hard to understand – which can be frustrating, in particular at the beginning of the book. As you immerse yourself in the story, you will start to grasp Yoon’s terminology and start to understand the conflict running through the story and what is at stake.

But what is the story? That’s a little complicated. We follow the POV of Kel Cheris, a officer in the Kel army. The empire in Ninefox is separated into six subgroups, each responsible for different parts of running it, and each with different magic granted to them by their membership. The Kels are the army and gain power through battle formations. Saying that last sentence aloud made me feel like it sounds really dumb out of context, but trust me when I say while it’s hard to explain the book it’s really cool when you are in it. The empire has a slight internal problem, one of their impenetrable ‘calendrical’ fortresses has been penetrated. Rebels have taken over what is essentially a religious radio tower that stabilizes and reinforces the empires beliefs to the surrounding areas. This is bad because a rebel set of beliefs in a key node such as this is essentially causing reality, and the empire’s rule, to break down around it – and it’s spreading. To address this issue, the empire picks a group of candidates to come up with solutions to deal with the issue using the weapon of their choice. Cheris, our main character, chooses to resurrect the empire’s best general (who went insane during his final battle) and see if she can use him as a consultant on how to tackle this problem.

As I have said, the plot and world can be confusing. It is hard to comment on the quality of the world building. On the one hand there are so many cool ideas and technologies in Yoon’s book that I was fascinated with my surroundings. On the other hand, the world often feels like Yoon is just throwing out phrases and ideas with little explanation and planning. On the … third ….hand, I will say that I definitely love the characters. Cheris, Jedao, and their support cast bring a lot of life, energy, and excitement to the book. I was heavily invested in their stories and lives, something that helped stay immersed in the book when I had no idea what was going on. The plot starts out confusing, ends with some gained clarity, but remains awesome from beginning to end. In particular the ending of the book did an incredible job setting up the sequel and has left me champing at the bit to find out what I can be confused about next.

The Ninefox Gambit is weird, quirky, and a wild ride that I recommend to almost everyone. If you can let go of the reigns, the book will take you on a wild ride with stunning sites and great characters. In the realm of badass tacticians, Jedao is up there with the best and I cannot wait to see what he and Cheris (who is amazing in her own right) have in store for us next. There is a reason this book made the Hugo ballot this year, and it is much deserved. Go check out the Ninefox Gambit as soon as you can.

Rating: Ninefox Gambit – 9.0/10