Weapons that tear holes in reality, letting in thousands of eyes and teeth. Military strategies depending on clocks and calculus. Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate series brings truly unique world-building to space opera. Baroque and character-driven, his series is also governed by strict mathematical laws. Reading a Yoon Ha Lee novel feels a bit like playing a video game: navigating ever-changing hallways, waiting for the time to be right for an exotic attack to clear the field.
His latest work, the short fiction collection Hexarchate Stories, doesn’t necessarily stand alone. Several of the stories are reprints set in the same universe, while others are brand new. A novella continues where the last novel left off. Lee is a prolific writer of flash fiction, fanfic-style prompts that fill in his original universe, and games. But to lay the groundwork for Hexarchate Stories, it may the best for a reader to start with the trilogy.
Here’s where to begin…
Ninefox Gambit, published in 2016, tells the story of soldier Kel Cheris, a captain in the wide-reaching armies of the Hexarchate empire. She becomes reluctant host to the disembodied spirit of Shuos Jedao, the “arch-traitor,” a strategic genius who turned on his own army. He can’t do math to save his life, so Cheris is a walking calculator for him too — and, gradually, a driving force in rebellion against the empire.
Ninefox Gambit was awarded the Locus Award for best first novel, and nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards. This isn’t the first time Lee published fiction set in the Hexarchate universe, but I’ll explain more of that below.
Along with the calendrical mechanics, another main aspect of the world building are the factions. With all the personality-test appeal of Hogwarts houses and none of the coziness, they divide some but not all of the citizenry into specialities. Kel is the name of a faction, not Cheris’ given name. Tensions and intrigues between factions give the series a whiff of comedy-of-manners, all set against the backdrop of gory, hostile science fiction.
The trilogy continues with Raven Stratagem (2017) and Revenant Gun (2018). With their initial rebellion successful, the combined Cheris and Jedao now need to deal with the day-to-day consequences of having taken over a command ship. It’s another solid, complex novel, if very much a middle chapter. New characters both explain more about the factions and show strong, entertaining personalities.
Revenant Gun moves away from Cheris’ story. She’s present, but the majority of the book follows a clone of Jedao, one with none of his predecessor’s guile or trauma. He’s a blank slate, perhaps the only truly innocent person in the series, and he kicks off a conversation about how a person learns to have a strong moral code while living in a casually amoral empire. The Hexarchate ritually sacrifices prisoners and citizens alike to literally keep the engines of empire running, and in this third novel we see the full horror of that. It’s a book full of rigorous ideas, and very different from the first two.
After reading these, you’ll be generally caught up to Hexarchate Stories. “Glass Cannon,” a novella included in the collection, directly follows the third novel. But there are also other short stories and ephemera for the reader who wants as complete a look at the Hexarchate as possible. It contains 21 stories, including the novella.
One of those is “The Battle of Candle Arc,” which was published in Clarksworld in 2012 and mentioned as Jedao’s famous victory in Ninefox Gambit. This is one of many Hexarchate stories which can be accessed for free: others include “Extracurricular Activities,” another prequel about Jedao, this one published at Tor; and “The Robot’s Math Lessons,” a very short story about his universe’s sentient droids posted on Lee’s website. The latter is a typical example of the fanfic-type prompt stories: requested by readers from a prompt list and posted for free, they can range from under 1,000 words long to several paragraphs in length.
Lee has also published two short story collections, The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales (2015) and Conservation of Shadows (2013).
His latest work is Dragon Pearl (one of Den of Geek’s Best Space Operas of 2019), a middle grade novel about a trickster fox in a science-fantasy universe. It’s published under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, and draws from Korean mythology. Lee was also a contributor to The Vela, a collaborative serial novel set in a solar system where the sun is slowly dying.
Yoon Ha Lee’s interaction with fans on his website and Dreamwidth are typical of his internet-savvy nature. This up-to-the-minute sensibility makes his writing feel fresh and youthful, but also sometimes meandering or repetitive—he is, like many authors throughout time, known to return to certain preoccupations across multiple stories and novels.
Lee’s varied inspirations can be seen immediately in this interview from Barnes & Noble, where he cites ethnomathematics texts and Planescape: Torment one after another. Although Hogwarts is the quickest association with fantasy personality-sorting, Lee drew the idea of his factions from the card game Legend of the Five Rings.
Hexarchate Stories may not be the place to chronologically start, but the beauty of Lee’s stories is that the meticulous aesthetic comes through no matter where in the series you start.