Every Sky Is Full of Stars – Blog Guest Post By Yoon Ha Lee

81s4snnvywlWhen Ninefox Gambit came out, I remember the consternation of some readers that starships were called “moths,” and not just “moths” but different kinds of them, everything from the big cindermoths to the logistical support ships called boxmoths and later the stealthed needlemoths and shadowmoths.  Why moths?  Why not just call them ships like everyone else?

I had a couple reasons for this.  The first was pure convenience on my part.  I can barely tell left and right apart in English, let alone port and starboard.  (This certainly made things interesting when I read Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander years ago, excellent book though it is.)  The thought of having to spend an entire book figuring out nautical terminology filled me with horror.  I wanted to refer to floors and walls, not decks and bulkheads.  So I didn’t call my starships “ships.”  Problem solved!  I figured that given that the hexarchate’s denizens aren’t actually speaking English anyway, I could justify this as a reflection of their own terminology.

Why “moths” instead of some other creature?  I wanted something that flew, that had a name that was one syllable long in English, and that had a group name (e.g. herd of cows, pack of elephants) that sounded sufficiently warlike.  I made the mistake of relying on a glorious Tumblr picspam for my information (protip: don’t do this!) and thought that moths came in “swarms,” which sounded perfect for an analogue to “fleets.”  This is probably incorrect, though, sorry!  I can’t seem to find a definitive answer to this on Google (one site suggests a group of just moths is a “wainscot”); anyone?

The other big reason was that my ships were living ships.  Specifically, as if the hexarchate weren’t awful enough as it stands, they’re enslaved cyborged aliens from a shadow dimension.  This isn’t really brought up in the first book because none of the viewpoint characters really know or care about it.  In hexarchate culture, they would no more think about moths as potentially having autonomy than I would think about whether my socks have opinions.  They’re just tools for the humans’ convenience.

But the moths aren’t just enslaved aliens, they’re enslaved sentient aliens.  This fact comes into play at last in Revenant Gun, when the titular ship, the Revenant, begins talking to Jedao.  The Revenant has definite opinions about what it wants to be doing with its life, which do not include being a slave for the rest of its life.  And it’s not incapable of making plans or gathering allies in support of those plans.  To find out how those plans go, you’ll have to read the book!

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Revenant Gun – Interview with Yoon Ha Lee

81s4snnvywlThe incredible author of Revenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee, agreed to answer some of questions of our about his complex and gripping The Machineries of Empire series. Thank you again Yoon for taking the time to talk to us, and everyone else enjoy our questions and answers below! Revenant Gun comes out this week and you can find our review of it here. There also is a blog tour happening right now, so be sure to be on the lookout for other interviews and articles about Yoon.

I deeply admired your ability to world build in the first book in a way that relied on the reader’s engagement and willingness to accept the gaps. How hard was it to leave a lot of the stuff open ended to the reader, while still getting general idea across?

Honestly, while I had an outline and a bunch of notes, in writing Ninefox Gambit I made up a lot of stuff as I went!  Patricia C. Wrede makes an interesting distinction between what she calls “iceberg” worldbuilders and “bubble” worldbuilders, and I definitely tend toward the latter.  “Iceberg” worldbuilders are people like Tolkien–they come up with the deep history of the world and its cultures and maps and everything.  “Bubble” worldbuilders make up things as they go and everything is on the surface–there may be hints but there aren’t 500 pages of backstory lurking in the background.  Of course, she says–and I discovered it to be true–that “bubble” worldbuilders turn into “iceberg” worldbuilders when they write a longer work like a series, because you start actually having to keep track of what you’ve said and you need to keep your world consistent within itself.  Leaving a lot of things open-ended was a natural side-effect of the way I built the world.

How did you elevator pitch this story to your publisher? I have been asked to give a short description of the series before and completely failed so I would love to steal your answer.

Fortunately, I was able to look up my query letter to agents, which is probably pretty close:

Captain Kel Cheris is ordered to recapture a space fortress whose takeover by heretics my disable her nation’s advanced technologies, which depend on the state religion.  The weapon given Cheris is a dead tactician, Shuos Jedao.  Jedao may be the only one capable of outthinking the fortress’s defenses.  But he went mad during a former life, massacring his own soldiers, and while he seems sane now, no one knows how long that will last–least of all Cheris, who has been made host to his spirit.

Um.  I’m not going to pretend that’s the best pitch in the history of pitches; it’s very definitely a skill I’m still working on!

What was your inspiration for the series? Was there some external force or did all of this series majestical weirdness solely come from the depths of your mind?

There were several inspirations!  First let me talk about Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), a collectible card game/roleplaying game originally created by Alderac Entertainment Group (it has since been bought out and rebooted as a Living Card Game by Fantasy Flight Games).  I started playing it in college, and one of the things that sucked me in was the lore.  Its setting, the land of Rokugan, is a sort of fantasy feudal Asia (mostly Japan) and one of its key features was that you could join one of several clans, each with its own specialties–for example, the Lion Clan was known for its honorable warriors and tacticians, the Crane Clan for its elegant courtiers and duelists, the Scorpion Clan for its ninjas and seductresses.

Fast forward a number of years.  A man named Rich Wulf wrote a modern-day, cyberpunk-influenced fanfiction series about the setting called Rokugan 2000.  Inspired, some friends and I conceived of a space opera version of L5R called Rokugan 3000.  (A number of people around the web had the same idea–we were hardly alone.)  I was really excited about writing fic for samurai in space.

There was a catch, however.  AEG was looking for another writer for its official Story Team, and I wanted to apply.  And I knew that if by some miracle I succeeded and joined the Story Team, I would have to stop writing fanfic for the setting.  As luck would have it, Robert Denton III and I were both selected for it (Robert is currently writing for FFG now, as it happens, among other things).  So I shelved Rokugan 3000.

I still wanted to write space opera, though.  I had a great experience working with folks at AEG but ended up leaving after a year, and decided that it would be a good time to try to write a space opera in a setting of my own devising.  The hexarchate has influences from Rokugan–the factions were loosely inspired by the clans.

There were other influences.  In high school I read Jack L. Chalker’s Spirits of Flux and Anchor series, and one of its features is magic-like effects caused by manipulation of math and computers, as well as areas where magic doesn’t work.  I’m not sure I would recommend the books to a modern reader, as they have some notable flaws (Chalker’s portrayals of female characters and sex changes were sometimes odd), but Chalker was a history teacher and I was fascinated by his explorations of historical processes.

Finally, there was ethnomathematics, which I learned of through Marcia Ascher’s Mathematics Elsewhere.  I never had the privilege of meeting Ascher during her life, but it turns out it’s a small world–I found out later that she was the godmother of a college friend’s brother.  In any case, the whole idea of calendars affecting the laws of physics in a magical fashion came both from Ascher’s writing and from reading Harlan Ellison’s “The Paladin of the Lost Hour,” which was the first time I really thought about differing calendar traditions in the context of fiction.  In real life, of course, I was used to lunar calendar celebrations vs. the Western calendar in South Korea (fun fact, you get to celebrate New Year’s twice!).

Considering there was so many cool and weird things in this series, I want to know, what came first, Jedao as a shadow, or the calendrical system?

The calendrical system.  Jedao as a shadow I made up on the spot.  I will own that as I approached the scene where he’s initially attached to Cheris I felt a stab of panic wondering how to make him sufficiently interesting…

The idea of the Hexarchate is extremely intriguing and the sort of weird self-propagation of its values through factional competition and prejudices feels very natural. The whole thing always feels like it is teetering on the edge, but manages to remain in control. Where did the Hexarchate/Heptarchate start for you? Why did it feel important to have separate factions as a coalition instead of a sole ruler with a feudal duchy like system?

See above about being inspired by clans in Legend of the Five Rings!  I admit that my feeling is that a system that precarious should only have lasted a couple centuries, tops, but I decided that strict plausibility was less important than having fun, especially in a space opera.  I went with coalition rule because I thought that had more potential for exciting infighting and also because I’m a little burned out on evil empires with sole rulers, so I wanted to do something a little different.

Of the six factions in the world, which do you see yourself belonging to?

I took the faction sorting quiz that Solaris came up with (http://www.solarisbooks.com/post/2065) and came out as a Nirai.  Since I have a B.A. in math, I suppose that tracks, although I didn’t pursue math further (ironically because I didn’t want to give up writing for six or seven years while doing a doctorate).  In real life, I see myself as one of the masses of unaligned citizens, a redshirt sort of person.

You decided to expand a lot of the world building and explain a lot of the science in the final book as opposed to the first (which I loved). Why keep your readers in the dark so long?

It was a controversial decision!  I often enjoy that kind of storytelling, though, so I wanted to give it a go.  One of my favorite examples of it is C. J. Cherryh’s The Faded Sun, where you learn about the different aliens (especially the mri and regul) as you go on.  (Obviously, I’m nowhere near as skilled a writer as someone like Cherryh!  But one ought to aim high, if one is going to do things at all.)

As for explanations in book three, one reason is that it seemed cruel to leave readers hanging in the last book of a trilogy.  The other reason has to do with choice of viewpoint characters.  In Ninefox, Cheris doesn’t really think about how things work if they’re a part of her everyday ordinary existence; when I read a book set in the modern day and someone turns on a light switch, I don’t need two paragraphs explaining power generation and distribution to me, I just need to know that flicking the switch makes light appear.  Even in a fantasy, if someone throws a fireball, I don’t need to know the grand unified theory of how fireballs happen; the name of the spell tells me it’s a ball made of fire, so why belabor the obvious?

In Revenant Gun, on the other hand, the main viewpoint is that of an amnesiac Jedao.  Not only that, but he’s a few centuries out of date.  So I explain things when Jedao learns about them, because it’s part of his process figuring out the world around him and what to do about it.

Not to spoil anything, but the conclusion to Revenant Gun leaves Jedao’s fate very open ended, would you consider doing another series about him or is this the end for your grand tactician?

Actually, I’m at work on a collection of stories set in the hexarchate, part reprints and part new materials, and one of the stories picks up after the end of Revenant Gun, with Jedao and Cheris going on an adventure together, quarreling all the way.  So stay tuned?  I’m not sure I have another series in me–I think I need to do something different for a bit, next–but I won’t rule it out.

What are your favorite sci-fi and fantasy books? Who are your favorite strategists in fiction and why?

Oh, you’d ask the hard question!  Iain M. Banks’ Player of Games, which I loved so much with its game-playing and metacommentary and double-crosses that I’m afraid to read more Culture books because how are they going to live up to it?  Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs is a fantastic exploration of magic, gods, and colonialism married to a spy thriller.  Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, of which my favorite is Memory, although you need to read the others first for it to make sense.  C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen with its brilliant and disturbing exploration of nature vs. nurture and genius characters everywhere.  Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which has an antihero protagonist who weaponizes economics, although it’s not for the faint of heart.  For something completely different, C. S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy, which is erotic fantasy.

And just because I’m a tease, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, which I read in ARC and which is coming out in 2019, in which an emissary from a tiny space station takes on a hungry empire based on a mixture of the Aztecs and the Byzantines; and S. L. Huang’s Zero-Sum Game, a near-future thriller about a female mercenary who is so staggeringly good at math that it’s essentially a superpower.

Favorite strategists or tacticians in fiction who we actually see doing their thing include Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, who terrifies the spit out of me.  If Miles were real, I would make it a point to live the next galaxy over because he’s dangerous.  Baru Cormorant from Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, one of the rarer female examples.  There’s also a great female chessmaster in Ilana C. Myer’s Fire Dance.  If you allow anime, then Lelouch Lamperouge from Code Geass and Kaizuka Inaho from Aldnoah.Zero, and if you allow kdramas, Misil and Seondeok from The Great Queen Seondeok.

What is up next for you now that Machineries is done?

I have a middle-grade novel coming out from Disney-Hyperion in January 2019, Dragon Pearl.  It’s a space opera based on Korean mythology–you should have heard my mom’s ? response when I asked her for help researching pungsu jiri, the Korean version of feng shui!–in which a teenage fox spirit goes on a quest to clear her brother’s name after he allegedly deserts from the Space Forces to search for a powerful magical artifact that can change worlds.

Currently, I’m wrapping up the hexarchate short story collection, and after that I’ll be writing a novel for Solaris inspired by the curious story of the paint pigment PO49 or Quinacridone Gold.

Often in military science fiction I find a lot of the writing transfixed by the technology of war, without considering the consequences of using it. However, a lot of the technology in your series was showcased with a sense of wonder, followed by an incredible feeling of foreboding before the full brutality of it was revealed. Was this a deliberate effort on your part? And if yes, why did you feel the reader should go through this realization with each new weapon?

I know that brutal depictions of violence and carnage are not for every reader, but that was deliberate.  I feel that the effects of terrible weapons should not be shied away from.  While I do not have a military background, my father spent some years as a surgeon in the US Army, so I grew up with an awareness that when people go to war, someone has to stitch the survivors back together.

Some people have stories of war veterans in their families.  I don’t have that, really.  But I’m Korean-American and we do have stories of the Korean War.  The one that I remember most keenly is the one my mother told me. Her mother–my grandmother–already had two small children plus a baby, and she was evacuating Seoul with her family a couple months after the war broke out.  Grandma made the hard decision for the family to abandon the baby by the side of the road so that the other children would have a better chance of survival.  But another woman picked up the baby and brought her back to Grandma and said, “You forgot this.”  Grandma didn’t have the heart to abandon the baby again.  That baby was my mother, and it is because of that woman, whose name we don’t know, that my mother survived, and that I am here today.  So I always try to remember that war has a cost, not just for the soldiers but the civilians, even though in this trilogy I chose to focus on the soldiers, who are no more and no less human than the people they are fighting for.

Thanks again Yoon, and be sure to check out The Machineries of Empire if you haven’t already!

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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

Raven Stratagem – Worth Rav(en)ing About

30691976Well we are back to this crazy series this week. For those of you unfamiliar with The Machineries of Empire series, by Yoon Ha Lee, it is a ridiculous military science fiction in a confusing and exciting universe. For those who have not read the first book (The NineFox Gambit), I highly recommend you just go read my review instead of lingering around here – nothing is going to make sense otherwise. For those of you who are still here, let’s talk about the brand new second book in the series, Raven Stratagem.

If I had to distill my experience with The Ninefox Gambit down to one sentence, it would be: I have no idea what is going on – but it is so fast and exciting that I am fine with it. In Raven Stratagem, things are still confusing as all hell – but Yoon Ha Lee spends time making events noticeably more clear than book one. This does, however, come at the cost of some speed and excitement. I think it is a good trade off, especially for a middle book in a series, and in the long run is of service to the story. As a result, Raven Stratagem didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat quite like book one, but I feel like I have a much better understanding of the players in the story and the direction the plot is going. One of the major changes to the story is a narration change from a central POV to multiple POVs. When we had last left our intrepid heroes (Cheris/Jedao) their health was a bit unclear and they fell off the grid. Raven opens with their reemergence onto the scene and the theft of a new fleet of ships in order to wage war. To add mystery and intrigue to their plan, the POV shifts away from them to the displaced general of the stolen fleet, Kel Khiruev, and the hexarch of the Shous, Mikodez. These two POVs allow for a much bigger 360 degree look into Cheris/Jedao’s plans and allowed for a lot more world building that was present in the first novel.

The result is a lot less brilliant strategic executions, though they still litter the book, and a lot more small stories adding depth and emotion to the characters. Both of the new POVs are good, but I really got behind the hexarch. He gives tons of insights into how the hexarchate works, and was just a blast to read about as a character. His hilarious dialogue and strange personality go a long way to adding some levity to this mostly sad story, and he is just a fun person to read about – even if he is trying to inconvinence our protagonists. The other POV, Khiruev, is fine but just didn’t resonate on the same level for me as the hexarch. While I think the trade off of excitement for structure was good, I will say that Raven does occasionally slow down a bit too much for my taste. Cheris and Mikodez both have small quirks that I found to be nice breaks from the action, but Khiruev’s sections could occasionally feel like they were dragging on a little bit. Finally, one thing I loved about Raven was how it fleshed out and spent more time with all of the orders of the hexarchate, and I am hoping that the next POVs might be from one of the four other factions we have not got a detailed look into yet.

Raven Stratagem might not have the speed and excitement of The Ninefox Gambit, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great time. The second book in this series grounded me in the world, introduced new and exciting characters, and still had a good helping of the excitement and twists that made the first novel so powerful. This is shaping up to be one of the best science fiction series in recent memory, and I highly recommend you check it out.

Rating: Raven Stratagem – 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