The Revenant Gun is the third and final entry in Yoon Ha Lee’s “Machineries of Empire” series. The first two books were imaginative work with cunningly crafted characters, desperately eldritch technologies, high stakes plot and some top-notch world building; to get it out of the way, this finale does not, in any of those categories, disappoint.
The world…well, the world has changed. The Hexarchate, that sprawling empire, ruled by elite castes, with exotic technologies that persist based on calendrical observances, is over. Politically, what was once the Hexarchate is split – between those holding to the old calendar, their technologies powered by pain and torture of dissidents and heretics, and those who say that observance is now a matter of choice. The external factors are still there – other political entities which are either alien, or have different enough views to be considered so – creeping around the edges of the Hexarchate borders, looking for an excuse to pull chunks off it. This is what keeps the factions from all out war – but space is an imbroglio of barely suppressed tensions, one swift trigger pull away from devastation.
There’s a lot of really clever social structures work here; the different castes – the militaristic Kel, constrained by their ingrained need to follow the orders of those above them, the fey Shuos, artists and intelligencers limited by their own need to scheme against each other…and all the others – feel distinct, and ever so slightly strange. They’re human enough to be sympathetic, with edges which feel strange and unfamiliar. That strangeness is backed by the exotic technologies which tie the galaxy together. There’s weapons which work in non-Euclidean space, with descriptions which hint that detail might drive the reader mad, the servitors – near human creatures whose society and culture is limited by the perception of those who see them and there’s the Moths, ships with internals which rearrange themselves dependent on who is inside, the ability to leap distances and some seriously terrifying firepower.
It’s a strange, sharp edged, bloody world, once ensconced in systems which are often uncaring or broken. But it’s a fascinating universe, filled with the odd and the unknowable, a place where the liminal becomes the real, often painfully. It’s an often disturbing space, with a razor edge. But that’s counterbalanced by hope, in the form of its meticulously crafted characters.
Jedao, who we’ve seen a lot of in one way or another, is probably the most obvious of these. Jedao is whip smart, ready with a swift analysis and a smart mouth, letting his intelligence run the game for him. But here he’s also damaged, unsure of himself, trying to anchor to a sense of identity in a swirling morass of contradictions, some of which might end lethally. The mind behind the eyes is always three steps ahead, but always struggling against a lack of understanding. In contrast to the older, more focused Jedao, this is an individual with a sense of optimism. Often thwarted, often backed by a sarcastic remark or the odd bout of gunfire, but this Jedao isn’t ground down. That said, he carries a certain amount of baggage, both clear and subtextual. There are meditations on authority and consent here, as in previous novels, as Jedao struggles with to square his personal feelings with duty, and both with larger concerns of ethics. His is a love story, of a sort – just one which delves into the more occluded corners of the soul, and is unflinching in its exploration of those.
If those aren’t big enough issues, framed in personal relationships, there’s others. Brezan, for example, the Kel staffer-turned-general-turned-reluctant-revolutionary, shows his face again, trying to construct a political entity which will weather the storms of battle and time. I’ve always loved Brezan, for their combination of exhausted running-out-of-craps-to-give, and barely visible idealism. They’re determined to both look at the big picture and try to understand at least some of the minutiae, and are also smart enough to know that this may be impossible. Fortunately, they have Mikodez to help out; once a Hexarch one of the great powers in the universe, Mikodez now helps guide this universe toward a hopefully better future – but is rather fey about it. Clearly horrifiyingly intelligent, and a giver of small gifts to others, Mikodez’s backchat with other key players always makes me smile, and his emotional undercurrents in discussions with Brezan are enough to make one weep.
There’s also a lot more time spent with Kujen, the arch-mastermind of the Hexarchate. Kujen is, to put it mildly, odd. They seem to have an affection for Jedao, but it slithers gently around the borders of the acceptable. They also seem capable of all sorts of atrocities to achieve their goals. But there are hints of a different person there, one not yet dragged through the hedges of life, one who made the wrong choices for the right reasons. In my reading – and it’s a mark of how impressive the prose is that yours may differ – Kujen is an old, old monster. But also an indicator that any of the characters could become such a thing, given time and motivations. The abyss has looked back into Kujen, and it’s possible that all that separates them from the other characters is time, and appalling decisions.
It's a subtle book, one which approaches complex questions. There’s the politics of empire, to be sure.
There’s an examination of authority, of love, and of trust and what that means. There’s love, and the different forms it takes. There’s duty, and what it drives us to do. There’s more time with the servitors, that minority group whose agenda is debatable, but whose segregation and marginalisation is not. All of this is wrapped in a story filled with laser fire, with pistols, ticking timers and bloodbaths. There’s some wonderfully esoteric space battles which also have all the immediacy of a punch in the face, and some emotionally fraught scenes which felt like I was being torn apart.
It’s thoughtful, character driven sci-fi in a highly original, terrifying universe, with a plot that kept me turning pages until far too early in the morning. If you’re not reading the series yet, go and give Ninefox Gambit a try. If you’re all caught up, then yes, this is storming conclusion to an excellent sci-fi series.