When I first read this, I was initially put off by the discussion of math. It took me probably too long to get past the fact that my enemy numbers was being discussed, and to understand that this is math-enabled magic, at heart. (This may bother people looking for hard SF, but as far as I know it’s true: the math, which is discussed in relatively little detail, causes effects in the physical worldthrough unspecified physics. It’s magic.)
So start again: this is magic in space. Kel Cheris, an officer in the Kel army, is fighting to uphold the Calendar; the Calendar governs what magic will function, and is founded on math and various “remembrances”, aka ritual tortures. Cheris is a little odd for a Kel: where most of her fellow soldiers can only use canonical formations and are not very adaptable, she has the ability to think outside the box. She can make the magic work in different, heretical calendars… which is why she’s first somewhat disgraced (because what she did was itself heretical) and then tapped to answer a serious problem with calendrical warfare. Her solution is an old, old weapon: what amounts to the ghost of a Kel general who, once upon a time, went mad and slaughtered countless people.
It turns out that to use the general, Jedao, you have to “anchor” him, and Cheris is chosen as the anchor — the only person who can hear what he has to say, relay his advice, and also put him back in the box if he shows any signs of going mad again.
What could possibly go wrong.
Reading this again was delightful, because I can see more of the machinations and more of people’s motivations. Jedao remains a delight to me, and a perfect combination with Cheris’ skills — and as someone who can’t read a simple number without stumbling, I can definitely cheer for a dyscalculic general who is a splendid tactician. (I did love the distinction between a strategist and tactician, as far as long-term thinking goes. That comment comes fairly early, and then — well, judge for yourself whether Jedao is a tactician, a strategist, or both.)
I think Yoon Ha Lee has done an amazing job at creating characters who are deeply, fatally flawed, partially due to the situation they’ve found themselves in — the Hexarchate is also deeply, fatally flawed — and who are also very conscious of it, very conscious of the shortcomings of the system they’re embedded in. There’s so much I could talk about in these books, about the Hexarchate, about the Kel specifically, about the way the characters interact… I haven’t touched on nearly everything I love.
Suffice it to say, I loved this book all over again and more.