Booknotes: Machineries of Empire


Booknotes: Machineries of Empire
Spoilers in this one for all three of these books! You have been warned.

There are some things that writers do that I'm a complete mark for and one of those is Battle Stations Dialogue—the kind of stuff that ship commanders yell when they're about to encounter the enemy. I love Battle Stations Dialogue, and the Machineries of Empire books (Ninefox Gambit, Raven Strategem and Revenant Gun) have really good Battle Stations Dialogue: "Banner the Deuce of Gears!" I searched to see if there was a tumblr with that name, because it really sounds like there should be, and I discovered that a) yes there is, it's run by the author and b) the author has also made a "soundtrack album" with that title (Homestuck-esque, as in it’s all midi-sounding instruments, but also very sick) to accompany the books. If there's one thing better than finding a book you like, it's finding a book you like where the author is demonstrably a mark for all the stuff about.

I tried reading Ninefox Gambit during 2020, and I bounced off after the first chapter—an experience not just limited to me; I had to tell my friend Shona to just go with it for a bit, and I've read reviews that say pretty much the same thing. It seems almost wilfully resistant to explanation: lots of unexplained terms tossed around, a difficult-to-grasp description of physical space, a lot of words expended on things which, due to the shipbound nature of the rest of the books and the subsequent installments, are not really relevant afterwards. When, e.g. The Wire does this kind of thing, you've got a whole load of visual and auditory information to contextualise things, but here it's just the words on the page, and all of those are quite obtuse. This time, for whatever reason, I persisted, and thankfully it paid off.

The basics are: space empire The Hexarchate, ruled over by the Hexarchs (formarly the Heptarchs, but one of the factions got kicked out) who each run factions which do various bits of empire duty. We mostly see the Kel (the army, all of whom are subs for their superior officers), the Shuos (sneaky spy people) and to a lesser extent the Nirai (Ravenclaw) and Andan (diplomats and culture... people). You also have the Rahal (civil servants and judiciary) and Vidona (inquisitors, who everyone hates). They all have their cool animal signs because they're Harry Potter houses and every person has their own "signifier" that's a variant of that which says something about them becaus it's also kind of astrology, and also people have their own cool emblems as well because BANNER THE DEUCE OF GEARS sounds sick as hell and and and.

It is a very "and, and, and" world in general, where there's several layers of Stuff happening at all times and almost all of them are completely incomprehensible at first. A lot of it is built around the maintenance of the High Calendar, this being the thing that allows 'exotic effects' to work—these can be thought of, without loss of generality, as magic. The flavour they're given is maths-y, which has led to several reviewers mentioning maths on their jacket quotes—and the author did study maths—but it's all window dressing, ultimately; it's military sci-fan. It's not an explicitly religious empire—there aren't, to the best of my recollection, any deities mentioned, but the power of their calendrical system is maintained by shared belief, so not following the observances required to maintain it is considered heresy. Said observances usually seem to involve torturing heretics, which as you might imagine creates its own supply of heretics.

The story follows Kel Charis, an field officer who is good at maths and in the first book has the ghost of a famous general who went mad (or did he?) and murdered his whole fleet at a famous battle attached to her so she can win what seems like an impossible battle. Again, despite all the spaceships it's probably a lot easier for you to think of all this stuff as basically magic, because that's mostly how it's treated in the book. A lot of the first book takes place in her head where she spends lots of time talking to the ghost, whose presence starts to affect her posture, her behaviour, and if at this point you're thinking, hey, is there any interesting gender stuff going on there? it may not surprise you to learn the author is a trans man.

She's able to win the battle, but then Nirai Kujen, the guy who's secretly running the whole empire from the shadows, tries to kill her, but she's able to escape and from there on she ends up on a crusade against the established order, gets one of the hexarchs to 9/11 the rest of them and the robots to 9/11 Space The Pentagon at the end of the second book, breaks the high calendar for some of the people and is eventually, after a third book of to-ing and fro-ing and a clone of Jedao and all sorts, able to assassinate Kujen and retire to be a maths teacher in the countryside which honestly sounds quite nice tbh. Because it's a sci-fi trilogy the second book is More Worldbuilding But Drags A Bit and the third takes place a decade after the others, but all said it manages to wrap things up pretty well.

There's a thing video games journalists used to do where they'd call games "flawed" to mean "it's got a load of problems but I still really like it" and if I'm being honest there's a fair amount of that in how I feel about these books. It has one of my least favourite devices—one that the Expanse books did as well, and it irritated the piss out of me there too—that of people surgically removing their empathy to do evil stuff more effectively. Looking at the world, one cannot help but feel that such surgery is in no way necessary, that power and money and status do that to people.

There are also devices that feel like they should be developed—that are thematically resonant—that just aren't really given the time or the space. The idea, for instance, that the voidmoths (which are what their ships are called) are technology grafted onto actual biological entities—expanding on something developed by the earlier books' introduction of servitors as a sentient robot servant class ignored by almost everyone (Charis seems to be the only person in the whole empire who's nice to these servitors and thus they take her side and , which, idk, bit silly)—but it's only introduced in the last book and really feels like kind of a throwaway detail to facilitate some plot points, even though it actually makes a lot of sense and should honestly have been given more focus. Possibly it's something to set up for a later book, but it still feels like it's not quite ok. That odd lack of focus on things which feel like they ought to be significant bleeds over into the pacing—it doesn't seem to flow in the way that it ought. It's not awful, but it does feel a little distracting.

Despite all this, I loved these books so much. So many aspects of them get inside your head: I got a message from Shona "halfway through ninefox gambit and starting to have dreams about whether the board game I'm playing is approved by the hexarchate" and that's the vibe, honestly. The majority of what's happening isn't really to do with the big pew-pew space battles as much as it is to do with what's in the character's heads; almost all of the significant action occurs in a few rooms. Really good, really fun, and certainly worth struggling through the initial weirdness for.