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The Machineries of Empire is a military Science Fantasy trilogy by Yoon Ha Lee.
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The calendar shapes everything. Large amounts of people following the same calendar and celebrating the same holidays at the same time can warp reality, producing exotic effects that seem almost magical. Of course, this only works as long as everybody in the area follows the calendar, and when most of your weapons and technology is exotic rather than invariant, it stands to reason that calendric rot - degradation of the calendar - is a problem.

It's a problem the Hexarchate is currently having. The Fortress of Scattered Needles, a space fort that has never been conquered, protected by an unbreakable shield of invariant ice, has been taken over by heretics. If left unchecked, the calendric rot will spread from there - and the Fortress lays in the heart of the Hexarchate. The suicidal task of reclaiming it falls to Kel Cheris, an infantry captain disgraced after utilizing heretic calendar to win a battle. Fortunately, she has the undead general Shuos Jedao, the most brilliant commander the Hexarchate ever had, attached to her shadow as an advisor.

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Unfortunately, Shuos Jedao is insane, and his last battle in his own body saw him murder everyone under his command. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust him – because she might be his next victim.

The series consists of:

  • "The Battle of Candle Arc" (short story, here)
  • "Extracurricular Activities" (short story, here)
  • Ninefox Gambit (2016)
  • Raven Stratagem (2017)
  • Revenant Gun


Tropes present in the series are:

  • Above the Influence: While the formation instinct would basically force Khiruev to have sex with Jedao, should he order her to, and he's definitely attracted to her, he manages to restrain himself.
  • Accent Relapse: Inverted; one of the ways Jedao's mind is influencing Cheris is that she starts speaking with his accent.
  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: In Ninefox Gambit, the story switches between massive space fights and the mental and intellectual tug-of-war between Cheris and Jedao.
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  • Action Prologue: Ninefox Gambit opens with Kel Cheris leading her troops in a ground battle against the heretics.
  • All for Nothing: In the prologue of Ninefox Gambit, Cheris's unit takes tremendous losses and she herself has to commit heresy to take the heretic infrastructure intact, only for her commanders to pull her out and blast the entire area into oblivion.
  • All There in the Manual: In-depth descriptions of the Hexarchate factions can be found on author's website.
  • Aloof Big Sister: Brezan's eldest sister, who keeps rubbing him in his face about how better she is than him without even realizing that she's acting snobbishly.
  • Ambiguously Evil: Shuos Jedao. He claims he doesn't remember much of what happened at Hellspin and that it's currently presumed he had some sort of psychotic break. He seems genuinely regretful for his past actions and is willing to help Cheris and serve the Hexarchate. On the other hand, years of investigation found no issues or problems in his mind, and everyone "in the know" is certain he cannot be trusted.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Just what is going on with Jedao, as well as the plans of Kel Command regarding him and Cheris, are left ambiguous throughout Ninefox Gambit.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Cheris is very good with numbers and she struggles to comprehend the extent of Jedao's killing.
  • Anti-Magic: Jedao is a magical meat shield for Cheris - any exotic attack that would kill her will hit him instead.
  • Animal Motifs: Everywhere.
    • Spaceships are called "moths", with various types being called "__moths".
    • Most factions are symbolized by an animal:
      • Shuos - ninefox
      • Kel - ashhawk ("suicide hawk")
      • Rahal - scrywolf ("execution wolf")
      • Vidona - the stingray
    • Shuos Jedao's signifier is the Immolation Fox, a variation on ninefox.
    • Kel Cheris's signifier is Ashhawk Sheathed Wings, symbolizing mentally stable Kel.
    • Servitors are shaped like stylized animals, with a particular animal depending on the owners' faction and the servitor's purpose.
    • Cheris's home is called the City of Ravens Feasting.
  • The Atoner: Jedao tells Khiruev that he's defending the Hexarchate from the Hafn because he wants to atone for his actions at Hellspin, though he doesn't expect - nor desire - actual forgiveness. Enforced, as Nirai Kujen did psych surgery on him to turn his guilt into a desire for atonement
  • Attack Drone: Generally averted, as servitors are incapable of channeling formation effects... under Hexarchate calendar. When Cheris realizes this isn't true for the heretic calendar, she utilizes servitors in combat as well.
  • Arcadia: The entire Hafn culture is focused around worshipping the land and putting simple pastoral life on pedestal. Jedao remarks that they actually write poetry about stuff like milking machines.
  • Arc Words: In Ninefox Gambit, "Yours in calendrical heresy, Vh." In Revenant Gun, "I'm your gun."
  • Badass Lesbian: Kel Cheris is a lesbian military captain (brevetted to general). Not that "lesbian" is really a concept in Hexarchate society, where diverse individuality of sexual orientations is unremarkable.
  • Batman Gambit: Jedao's master plan. He used his military genius to become a hero, then murdered everyone in Hellspin fortress knowing that he'll be executed for it, but also knowing that the Kel Command will not let his genius go to waste. This would mean that they'd put him in the black cradle, and that he'll be called out of it whenever a Hexarchate-threatening crisis arises. This in turn would allow him to wait for the perfect moment to overthrow the Hexarchate.
  • Battle of Wits: Jedao and Cheris destroy the invariant ice shield by breaking its operator.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Jedao takes over the Swanknot swarm by waltzing aboard under the pretense of being sent there by the Kel Command and then pulling rank on everyone present.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: The servitors try to help Cheris because she treats them as friends rather than equipment.
  • Beneath Notice: The servitors see many things because no one pays attention to them. They also make excellent infiltrators. One of them kills the skilled assassin Vahenz, who was not thinking of threats from that quarter. In the second book, Cheris recruits a large number of them to act as spies and assassins for her.
  • Benevolent A.I.: Servitors are uniformly helpful and courteous toward humans, in spite of being treated with contempt. Many of them even go beyond their duties to protect people.
  • Brainwashed: Kel recruits - or "fledges" - are conditioned with formation instinct, part of which is absolute obedience to the chain of command, regardless of what the orders are.
  • Boarding Pod: Used to deliver propaganda, Shuos infiltrators and servitors into the Fortress.
  • Body Double: Mikodez's siblings have all been modded (up to and including sex change) to be his body doubles, a job that mostly consists of them sitting at meetings and making visits Mikodez himself doesn't have time or patience for.
  • Body Surf: Nirai Kujen's immortality works this way. When Jedao shoots him for the first time, Kujen walks into his office again in a new body and claims that he has more bodies than Jedao has bullets.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Mikodez and his brother Istradez are lovers. Their parents know about it and don't even mind, reasoning that their two most energetic children might just as well keep themselves occupied.
  • Call-Back: In Raven Stratagem, Mikodez mentions that he's learned every language Jedao's ever known, including Tlen Gwa - which Jedao has acquired only the bare basics of in "Extracurricular Activities."
  • Can't Kill You, Still Need You: Kel Command would much rather terminate Jedao, but he's too brilliant to throw away.
  • The Chains of Commanding: To win, Cheris often has to commit terrible atrocities and send thousands of people to her death. Even though she knows, emotionally, that this is the right thing to do, it weights heavily on her.
  • The Chessmaster:
    • Jedao is a brilliant planner, and knows how to manipulate both individuals and armies into doing what he wants them to.
    • Mikodez is good enough that he’s outplayed his rivals to hold the Shuos hexarch’s seat for sixty years. Very few of his predecessors managed more than a decade. While it’s not suggested he intended the consequences it’s also notable that he made great efforts to bring Cheris and Jedao together, rather than use one of Kujen’s candidates as anchor, after confirming her math skills are the same level as Kujen’s. It’s never made clear if he knew that Jedao’s long term plan depended on being anchored to a math genius to compensate for his dyscalculia and was intentionally assisting with this; but things do tend to work out to his advantage.
    • Kujen is an almost thousand year old parasitic intelligence who invented much of the setting’s tech and been manipulating civilisation, both to ensure his own survival and for his own amusement for centuries.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Enough people following the same calendar will cause exotic effects to become possible, with the calendar dictating how any given exotic works.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture:
    • Invoked in Cheris's guide to handling Jedao, which mentions that in case he's uncooperative, the vessel should swallow wraith glass, which will, quote, "give the general a body so that he can be tortured".
    • Keeping the Hexarchate calendar working requires the Vidona to torture heretics on holidays. They do the same to the entire Mwennin people, Cheris's ethnic group, in an attempt to distract Cheris's attention.
  • Cooking Duel: In Gwa Reality, people settle their grievances with genetically-engineered viruses; it's mentioned that a Gwa duel can take years to finish.
  • Common Tongue: The high language is the Hexarchate's official tongue, while various worlds and cultures have their own languages.
  • Cosmic Keystone: The nexus fortresses project calendrical stability over large swathes of the Hexarchate, ensuring the exotic effects continue to work. Destroying one - or worse, subverting it - causes the whole Reality Warping to start falling apart in what is called calendrical rot.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: All sorts. The Vidona make a speciality of coming up with them. Notable examples:
    • The "feast of burning veins", which involves causing somebody's blood to catch fire, slowly burning them alive from inside.
    • "Corpse calligraphy" (actually an Andan rather than Vidona speciality), which fatally poisons people in a manner that makes a written inscription appear on their skin. This is sometimes used as a means of suicide as political protest.
  • Cruel Twist Ending: Downplayed; at the end of Ninefox Gambit, the Fortress of Scattered Needles is conquered and Cheris breathes a sigh of relief that she'll finally be rid of Jedao and her life will return to some semblance of normality, only for Kel Command to send a fleet and kill everyone in an attempt to get rid of the undead general once and for all. Cheris is the only survivor and she ends up possessed by Jedao.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Jedao has a few events in his past that messed him up badly, like his superior raping him (with everyone knowing what happened), him and his fellow agent being bombed by their own allies and the Hellspin Massacre.
  • Deadly Prank: In the Shuos academy, Jedao's contribution to the game competition was a game based around breaking rules. One of his friends ended up getting caught by a Doctrine official, while yet another claimed that she was the one to create the game, and both were grievously punished.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Most of the cast. The unnamed Nirai wraith who helps Cheris get used to having another mind in her head and keeps and eye on Jedao is particularly snarky towards the undead general.
  • Dead Person Impersonation:
    • In Raven Stratagem, Jedao uses Cheris's body and pretends to be her to get aboard Hierarchy of Feasts, whereupon he reveals himself.
    • In the same book, it turns out that Jedao has actually died at the end of Ninefox Gambit, shielding Cheris from an exotic weapon, and it's Cheris who's been pretending to be Jedao all along, aided by having all of his memories.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • The Kel culture values martyrdom and total obedience and brainwashing is considered par for the course.
    • Polygamy is perfectly normal, as are non-standard sexualities and gender identities.
    • When Jedao asks Khiruev if she has any children, she points out there are none mentioned in her files and is astonished when he specifies he means genetic offspring, as in contrast to his days, in Hexarchate "child" means a minor you have custody over, not a blood relation. In fact, the high language doesn't even have a word for a biological child, and Khiruev has to use the phrase "genetic spawn" to clarify Jedao's question.
  • Demonic Possession: Shuos Jedao's mind takes over Cheris's at the end of the first book, though she retains some of her identity and name.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Khiruev's Vidona mother executes her father - in front of Khiruev, no less - because he took their child to a historical reconstruction. In general, the Vidona crack down with extreme ferocity on the most minor heretical deviations.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: The servitors' favourite meeting place on Cheris's ship is near the spot where the various couples aboard go to make out, as they're so busy with each other, they don't realize there's a secret conspiracy meeting going on a few metres away.
  • Double Agent:
    • In "Extracurricular Activities," Meng has been a Gwa agent even before Jedao met them in the academy.
    • In Ninefox Gambit, it turns out Vahenz is a freelance agent working for the Hafn.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: Averted; Jedao being raped by his female superior is treated very seriously.
  • The Dreaded: Most of Cheris's subordinates find Shuos Jedao absolutely terrifying - and understandably so, considering Hellspin.
  • Driven to Suicide: Several of the characters.
    • Back when Jedao was still alive, his hexarch raped him, and he would've killed himself because of it if it wasn't for his friend finding him and dragging him out to spend some time in other people's company. It seems he's had suicidal tendencies ever since. Even Jedao Two isn't immune to this, because he blames himself for Dhanneth's rape and death.
    • [[spoiler:Jedao Two sees Dhanneth as having done this because of their affair
    • Jedao's brother committed suicide on the anniversary of the Hellspin massacre, presumably out of shame.
  • Eccentric Mentor: Jedao's attempts at teaching Cheris are unusual at best, making extensive use of her formation instinct and various games.
  • Emotion Bomb: When Cheris's fleet enters the calendrical rot zone for the first time, everyone but her finds themselves unconscious or otherwise non-functional for several hours, and she's almost Driven to Suicide because of Jedao's memories bleeding over to hers.
  • The Empire: The Hexarchate is a powerful entity that enforces its calendar upon everyone, inducts nearby polities by force, if necessary, responds violently to any rebellion and tortures heretics to keep its calendar going.
  • Equal-Opportunity Evil: Despite all the negative aspects of its society, the Hexarchate is notably free of gender-discrimination and homophobia, with men, women, and non-binary people all having representation in the leadership and widespread same-gender relationships with no social disapproval. There is still some lingering bigotry against binary trans people, but even this is depicted as limited to particularly old-fashioned circles.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Jedao may have murdered a million people, but draws the line at rape or anything that's Powered by a Forsaken Child. Mikodez doesn't find that particularly reasonable.
  • Everyone Is Bi: Pretty much. The Hexarchate doesn't seem to differentiate between sexual orientations as much as we do.
  • Exotic Extended Marriage: The Hexarchate is perfectly fine with people having multiple spouses; it's mentioned Meng has four partners, and both Brezan and Khiruev have three parents each.
  • Eye Scream:
    • The most notable effect of a threshold winnower is that it melts the eyes of everyone in its proximity. It then opens up gashes in their flesh, from which tiny teeth and even more eyes emerge. Oh, and the earliest models didn't even have safe zones.
    • One of Vidona torture methods involves scooping the victim's eyes out with a spoon.
  • Fangirl: Hemiola in Revenant Gun is a fangirl whose main hobby is making fanvids for its favourite drama.
  • Fantastic Caste System: The Hexarchate government is divided into six factions: Rahal (leadership, policing, law), Nirai (technology), Andan (culture, diplomacy, finance), Vidona (doctrine, calendar, education), Shuos (espionage, sabotage, assassination) and Kel (military). While a lot of people - perhaps even the majority - don't belong to any faction, to have any career in the factions' specialties or government, you must join a faction. All factions (except for Shuos, or so they say) have their exotic effects.
  • Fantastic Slur: "Crashhawk", for a Kel with free will.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: The mothdrive enables Hexarchate moths to travel between star systems. It's exotic technology.
  • Fate Worse than Death: With a touch of Deliberate Values Dissonance. Because of having participated in formations making use of a heretical calendar, Cheris's first battalion is dismantled and their formation instinct broken. They consider it this trope, because this means they are unable to channel formation effects, can't draw certainty and feeling of unity from each other's presence, and are left directionless.
  • Field Power Effect: The Hafn calendric warfare is apparently based on drawing energy from the land, such as their homeworlds, which is why their art is focused on pastoral scenes and why the Fortress of Spinshot Coins's phantom terrain ends up working against the Hexarchate - the Hafn use it to channel their power.
  • Fingerless Gloves: Back in Jedao's days, people who served with the Kel but came from other factions wore fingerless gloves to show that they are not Kel (who wear full gloves). For Shuos Jedao, as the most famous of those generals, this became an Iconic Item, to the point where this tradition was dropped after the Hellspin Massacre because of the association.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Jedao and Cheris slowly grow to like each other as the siege wears on, even if he still has his plans and she still distrusts him.
  • First-Episode Spoiler: It's a bit hard to talk about Raven Stratagem without mentioning that Ninefox Gambit ends with Jedao possessing Cheris and completely taking over her body.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: Near the end of Ninefox Gambit, Cheris realizes that the "friendly" fleet is here to destroy her ships just in time to start giving orders, but not in time for anyone to do what she's telling them.
  • Flashback:
    • Multiple flashbacks to Jedao's past happen near the end of the first book, when Cheris starts eating wraith glass to relive his memories and figure out what his true plan is.
    • Jedao has a flashback to the first time he met Meng in "Extracurricular Activities".
    • Brezan has a flashback to his time in the academy, and later goes on a twisted trip through his memories during the Rahal interrogation.
    • Khiruev has a flashback to the day her father died.
  • Foil: Cheris and Jedao. Cheris is a straightforward Kel who's a math prodigy to the point where everyone's surprised she's not a Nirai. She's an infantry captain and her signifier, the Ashhawk Sheathed Wings, means she's very stable mentally. She's also really bad at lying. By contrast, Jedao is a cunning Shuos, has dyscalculia, has mostly led fleets throughout his career and his signifier, Immolation Fox, is considered an alarm bell by people who know the meaning of it.
  • Forced to Watch: One of the ways the Vidona torture their prisoners is by showing them footage of their fellow captives being gruesomely mutilated. The video follows them on the walls if they look away, and their restraints make it impossible for them to close their eyes.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Vahenz's messages to Liozh Zai warn her several times that Jedao has his own plan that's not necessarily aligned with Kel Command's. Yes he does, and yes, it's not.
    • Jedao's claims that he wants to join the heretics when he tries to convince them to drop the invariant ice shields. It's a Sarcastic Confession.
    • The occasional mentions of the rest of the Kel navy fighting off a Hafn incursion while Cheris and her people are trying to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles. As of Raven Stratagem, the Hafn are a major problem.
  • Four-Star Badass: Shuos Jedao, a spy and an assassin turned general who's never lost a battle.
  • Free-Love Future: The Hexarchate is chill with any sexual orientation or gender out there.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Kel Khiruev can build an assassin servitor from a music box, pieces of a watch and some junk lying around her room.
  • Gambit Pileup: In book three the schemes of Cheris!Jedao, Kujen, Mikodez, Moth!Jedao and the Moths’ collide.
  • Gender Bender: Invoked when Cheris hears a male voice in her mind and sees a man when looking in a mirror. She initially thinks that the Kel Command changed her sex for some reason, only to be told that both the voice she hears and the man she sees are how Jedao communicates with her.
  • Geometric Magic: Formation channeling is based around this: by arranging troops - or ships - in a particular formation and putting them in right frame of mind, Kel units can manifest exotic effects such as force shields and energy lances.
  • The Ghost: Kel Command, who are responsible for putting Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao together; they are more dangerous to Cheris than the heretics are because of how much they want Jedao to be dead and because of how incompetently they are using their army. They are a composite mind. We don't meet any of them in Ninefox Gambit, but in Raven Stratagem, one of them, Kel Tsoro, participates in meetings of the Hexarchs.
  • Glamour: The Andan faction ability is enthrallment, which allows them to put any person of lower social status under their spell, though it grows less effective the more often it's used on any given target. It also can only be targetted at one specific person at a time, and for full effectiveness they need to know quite a lot about the target. This is why Tseya fails to glamour Jedao in Raven Strategem, because the person they think is Jedao is actually a mental hybrid of Cheris and Jedao with rather more Cheris.
  • Good with Numbers: Cheris is practically a prodigy, and a lot of her skill in command comes from her ability to utilize the complex mathematics involved in calendrical warfare.
  • Graceful Loser: Meng accepts that Jedao won and goes with him of their own free will when their game is up.
  • Grey and Grey Morality: It's hard to say who the good guys and bad guys are. Is it the Hexarchate, The Empire that nonetheless leaves most of its citizens to live in peace? The heretics, who took over the Fortress of Scattered Needles but have decent intentions? Shuos Jedao, who's willing to commit mass murder to destroy the Hexarchate, but is nonetheless helpful and even friendly to Cheris?
  • Handicapped Badass: Jedao has a learning disability (dyscalculia) and he's the most feared general in the Hexarchate.
  • Happy Flashback: At one point, Cheris reminisces about her youth, when she had a Shuos girlfriend.
  • Has Two Mommies:
    • Kel Brezan has three fathers.
    • Kel Khiruev has two mothers and a father (at least until the latter was executed).
  • Heart Is an Awesome Power: The Nirai faction ability is to always know the local time. Seems lame - until you realize that this makes Nirai the one group of people able to detect and measure the calendrical rot.
  • The Heretic: People who want to leave the Hexarchate and stop using the High Calendar are labeled heretics and if captured, they're tortured by the Vidona to celebrate holidays.
  • Heroic RRoD:
    • Battle of Candle Arc starts shortly after someone tried to assassinate Jedao, which means that for the first part of the story, he's barely able to keep himself conscious, let alone stand.
    • In Raven Stratagem, after Khiruev invokes Vrae Tala, her health begins to deteriorate rapidly throughout the rest of the book.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Kel do this almost as a hobby; quite a few times, entire units sacrifice themselves to ensure the rest of the swarm can succeed or survive.
    • Istradez takes it upon himself to travel to the meeting between hexarchs under the pretense of being Mikodez and take them all out in a suicide attack.
  • Hero of Another Story: While Raven Stratagem is taking place, Devenay Ragath apparently manages to survive the ending of Ninefox Gambit by getting himself stranded on the Fortress of Scattered Needles, frees himself from Kel Command's control, becomes an informant for Jedao, and eventually raises his own army. The protagonists only see and hear snatches of what could clearly be a novel unto itself.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: In-universe, the drama A Labyrinth of Foxes depicts Jedao and Heptarch Shuos Khiaz as having a mutual affair, when in reality she was a sadistic sexual predator who raped him.
  • Hold Your Hippogriffs: "For the sake of fox and hound" and various other phrases where "god" is replace with "fox and hound".
  • Hollywood Hacking: In the Show Within a Show Cheris is watching with a group of servitors, the Nirai love interest's "hacking" leaves the servitors snickering and mocking the screenwriter.
  • Human Sacrifice:
    • Regular ritual-torture-to-death is required to keep the Hexarchate's calendar functioning.
    • Cheris powers her calendar spike by sacrificing the Kel Command and everybody else aboard their space station.
    • In Revenant Gun, Kujen plans to reimpose the Hexarchate calendar permanently with a spike created by forcing Jedao Two to re-enact Hellspin, by massacring both Kujen's force and the combined Protectorate-Compact force with threshold winnowers on the original event's anniversary.
  • Iconic Item:
    • For Shuos Jedao, his Patterner 95 pistol and fingerless gloves.
    • A Kel can always be recognized by their black gloves.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: The reason why Cheris joined Kel rather than Nirai is that she wanted to feel like she belongs somewhere, and Kel, with their conformity and formation instinct, fit this need perfectly.
  • Immortality Immorality: So far, everyone who is or wants to be immortal is a terrible human being all around, the only difference being just how terrible they are.
  • Immune to Mind Control: Kel Brezan is a crashhawk, meaning the formation instinct didn't take and he doesn't feel the need to slavishly obey orders of his superiors. On one hand, this allows him to oppose Shuos Jedao when he utilizes the instinct to take over the Swanknot swarm, but on the other, crashhawks are usually kicked out of Kel upon being discovered because they're considered unreliable.
  • Inappropriately Close Comrades: The Kel has an extremely strong taboo against sexual relationships with any other Kel, even in completely different units, to the point that it's an executable offence. This is because formation instinct means that any sexual activity between people of different ranks would be Questionable Consent at best. The Kel attempt to reduce this further by supplying troops on campaign with libido-supressing drugs, copious supplies of porn and, for the higher ranks, courtesans. However, it still doesn't entirely prevent it. In one example we see, the questionably-moral point-of-view character convinces themselves that they don't need to report it because the lower-ranking person seems to be enjoying themselves.
  • Invisible to Normals: People who aren't possessed or undead themselves can't hear Jedao or see him in mirrors.
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: Inverted; Zehun loves cats and has two they indulge that often make trips to Mikodez's office, but they're a Shuos bureaucrat, making them hardly "kindhearted".
  • Kitsune: Called the ninefox, it's the symbol of the Shuos faction, as well as Shuos Jedao himself. It's associated with cunning and trickery, as is the real kitsune.
  • Klingon Promotion: Among the Shuos, it's considered natural that to get promoted, you have to assassinate your superior. For this reason, the position of a Shuos hexarch changes hands exceptionally often - or at least it used to until Shuos Mikodez got the job.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia:
    • It's mentioned that people to whom Jedao is attached have their memories of that period wiped when he's returned to the black cradle.
    • Turns out Nirai Kujen has deleted some of Jedao's memories as well, mostly, it seems, for the sake of experimentation.
  • Living Emotional Crutch: Not exactly living, per se, but Jedao seems to have taken it upon himself to help Cheris's emotional well-being.
  • Long Game: Jedao is playing one; he's essentially tricked the Hexarchate to put him in the black cradle so that he can wait for the best moment - and the right host - to turn against it.
  • Mad Scientist: Nirai Kujen, whose experiments have taken the lives of more than a few people and who often tinkers with people's minds to make them docile just because he can. He came up with the concept of the High Calendar and designed it to be based on ritual torture even though he could have chosen other ways.
  • Mad Scientist Laboratory: Khiruev's subordinates joke that the servitors must see her room as this, thanks to her habit of collecting various pieces of junk and assembling and disassembling machines. As the story goes, servitors use it to scare baby servitors into behaving.
  • The Man Behind the Man: While officially the Nirai hexarch is Nirai Faian, the true leader of the faction is the immortal Nirai Kujen.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Shuos Jedao's outstanding strategic and tactical successes are in large part due to his ability to read and manipulate his enemy by any means necessary. He's excellent at it. Shuos Mikodez possesses at least as high a skill, which he's used to remain Hexarch for four decades in spite of the Shuos tradition of Klingon Promotion.
  • Martyrdom Culture: The Kel are perfectly willing to - and are even encouraged to - throw their lives away for the Hexarchate. Even their symbol, the ashhawk, is sometimes referred to as the "suicide hawk", and the first Kel formation discovered is the one that causes the entire unit to burn alive while destroying the target. This is not, of course, a view shared by any of the other factions.
  • Meaningful Rename:
    • People who join a faction drop their family surname and add their faction's name in front of their given one.
    • At the end of the first book, Cheris drops "Kel" and returns to her family surname, as the Kel Command's betrayal causes her to abandon her faction.
  • Mercy Kill: The Shuos kill Dzera so that she doesn't have to endure more of Vidona torture.
  • More Than Mind Control: The Kel formation instinct is part brainwashing, part long and arduous training, and part Kel's own desire to belong in a group.
  • Military Science-Fiction: For all the calendric warfare, possession and mind control, this is still a story about navies and armies of various factions duking it out.
  • Mind Hive: On strategic level, Kel utilize composites, which are a single entity comprised of minds dozens of Kel and, occasionally, members of other factions. Kel Command is one such composite.
  • Mind Rape: This is what the Rahal "scrying" ability feels like, when you're on the receiving end — it involves forcing people into incredibly traumatic nightmares in order to bring out revealing reactions and break down their resistance to interrogation.
  • The Mirror Shows Your True Self: When looking in a mirror, Cheris sees Jedao instead of herself.
  • Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: You could cut it with a butter knife. Conventional technology still exists, of course; it's referred to as 'invariant' compared to the variable nature of exotics, but the sheer power of exotics (within the areas they can be maintained) rules the day by comparison. Invariant weapons are nothing compared to full-force exotics.
  • Moral Event Horizon: In-universe, the Hellspin Massacre - where Jedao killed one million of his and enemy troops in what seems like a psychotic break - is seen as one for him.
  • Moral Sociopathy: Explored with at least three different characters.
    • Mikodez really is a sociopath with morality, who maintains an overall good orientation despite his lack of morals, because he intellectually thinks that treating other people well is more effective in keeping society stable and avoiding trouble.
    • Jedao really tries to be one, because he thinks it's necessary, but is deeply tormented as a result.
    • Kujen deliberately turned himself into a sociopath because he found being a Well-Intentioned Extremist too painful and thought he could continue to achieve good ends, but ended up as just a sociopathic villain because he didn't account for Motive Decay.
  • Mr. Exposition: What little exposition the story gives you (and you'll be grateful for every scrap) comes about mostly when Jedao explains something to Cheris.
  • Mucking in the Mud: Phantom terrain basically invokes this IN SPACE! - it creates a sort of "mud" that slows the moths going through it to a crawl and blinds their sensors.
  • My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels: In "Extracurricular Activities," Jedao's attempts at speaking Tlen Gwa end up angering the person he's talking to rather than calming her down. It turns out a Gwa spy had messed with the dictionary Jedao's been using, replacing some words with ones with completely different (and mostly offensive) meaning.
  • The Needs of the Many: Cheris has to sacrifice a lot of her soldiers for greater good.
  • No Kill Like Overkill: To make sure they get rid of Jedao once and for all, the Kel Command destroys the entire fleet.
  • No Name Given: The Nirai responsible for keeping an eye on Jedao's black cradle never introduces himself to Cheris.note 
  • Non-Promotion: To lead the siege of the Fortress of Scattered Needles, Cheris is given the rank of brevet general. Unfortunately, Kel formation instinct doesn't respond to brevet rank, and she has to prove herself to her subordinates the hard way.
  • Non-P.O.V. Protagonist: Shuos Jedao is pretty much the main character of the series, but apart from a few flashback sequences seen through Cheris's eyes, he's never a point-of-view character in the books. Until the final volume, but that isn't the Jedao that we've previously known.
  • Nothing Is the Same Anymore: At the end of Raven Stratagem Cheris changes the calendar to make all calendric effects - including formation instinct - voluntary for the recipients, and Mikodez kills all other hexarchs. The book ends on what's very clearly the opening days of a civil war.
  • Not Quite Dead: Cheris near the end of Ninefox Gambit, as she's the only survivor of the Kel Command destroying her fleet, despite being heavily wounded.
  • Not So Stoic: When Mikodez asks Jedao how good Khiruev is in bed - implying the man had used the formation instinct to force her into having sex with him - the latter's calm facade completely breaks and he blanches in horror at what the Shuos hexarch is suggesting.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Jedao is only pretending that the Hellspin Massacre was the result of insanity; it was planned and premeditated as part of his Batman Gambit.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: The servitors pretend to be less sentient and stupider than they actually are to give themselves more freedom of movement and so that people wouldn't suspect them of scheming.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Jedao is kept in the black cradle when not attached to a living human. He can't control Cheris's body and can't read her mind, but he can see in all directions at once, including watching her expression. He can talk to Cheris and is visible for her in mirrors, and his signifier replaces hers. He'll take a hit from any exotic weapon for her, and can be physically pushed into her body if she swallows wraith glass.
  • The Peter Principle: Kel Khiruev joined the army because she wouldn't have to make any decisions and could simply follow orders. She ended up promoted to a general.
  • The Phoenix: The Ashhawk is a fiery hawk, and the signature formation of the Kel, which use the Ashhawk as their symbol, is one that causes self-immolation.
  • The Political Officer: Hexarchate voidmoths have Doctrine officers, usually drawn from Rahal, whose job is to watch out for any heresies the crew might have among them.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child:
    • The High Calendar is partly dependent on torturing large numbers of heretics on holidays.
    • The Hafn scout vessels are powered by young children, sewn together with symbols of their homeworlds such as birds or insects into elaborate devices.
  • Propaganda Machine: The Vidona are responsible for propagating the Hexarchate cause, reforming heretics and educating people until they turn seventeen - which is to say, indoctrination.
  • Propaganda Piece:
    • invoked in Ninefox Gambit when Jedao has Cheris drop dozens of propaganda leaflets, alcohol and drugs to shake the resolve of the Fortress's occupants.
    • Invoked again in Revenant Gun, when Mikodez, Brezan, and Tseya decide that it will be more effective to reveal the truth about Kujen via a drama than a bald press statement.
  • Psycho Sidekick: Jedao is one to Cheris in the first book, after a fashion.
  • The Purge:
    • To cow Jedao and Cheris into submission, the Hexarchs threaten to purge the Mwennin, a minority to which the latter belongs (Jedao's own Shparoi are long gone by this point). As Cheris's mind is dead at this point, Jedao refuses to let it cow him and they follow through with the threat, with less than a few thousand Mwenning managing to escape the ensuing genocide.
    • Mikodez decides to improve the chances of Cheris's plan succeeding by having all the other hexarchs murdered at the same time as her calendar spike.
  • Questionable Consent: Zig-zagged in Revenant Gun with Jedao and Dhanneth. Both of them are attracted to each other but Jedao is convinced that formation instinct makes it impossible for Dhanneth to truly consent, until Dhanneth persuades Jedao, already desperate for some relaxation and affection, that he is genuinely attracted to him. Then Kujen reveals to Jedao that he intentionally brainwashed Dhanneth to be sexually attracted to Jedao, and at a pivotal moment, when Jedao tries to save Dhanneth's life, Dhanneth deliberately kills himself to force Jedao to save another character instead. This leads Jedao to confess to Cheris that he raped Dhanneth and although he has at least two ulterior motivesnote , he does believe it.
  • Reality Warping: The backbone of calendric warfare. Upholding a calendar allows for a wide variety of effects that cannot be reproduced using normal rules of physics, such as formation effects, force shields, FTL travel or bombs that multiply your numbers. Calendric rot means that one calendar is being replaced with another and exotic effects are no longer achievable.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Nirai Kujen is, famously, the only man in Hexarchate who managed to achieve immortality using the calendar. He's a prominent character in Jedao's backstory, which happened several hundred years ago, and he's still the Nirai hexarch. Oh, and he still appears to be in the prime of his youth.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Invoked when Khiruev sees Jedao slide the muzzle of a gun along his jaw, finger on the trigger. She freaks out and asks if he doesn't require a refresher course on gun safety. He doesn't - his reasons are rooted in his mental problems rather than lack of knowledge.
  • Recycled In Space: According to Word of God, the universe of the trilogy is very loosely Legend of the Five Rings IN SPACE!
  • The Remnant: By the time of the main action of Revenant Gun, the Hexarchate has split into two major successors: the Compact, a democracy practicing Cheris's ideals and led by Brezan and (covertly) Mikodez, and the larger Protectorate, an example of this trope led by Kel Inesser as a military dictatorship attempting to continue the Hexarchate's system.
  • The Reveal:
    • In Ninefox Gambit:
      • The invariant ice is not actually invariant; it's an exotic effect and as such, can be influenced by other exotics.
      • Shuos Jedao intends to overthrow the hexarchate. This is less of a reveal for those who've read "The Battle of Candle Arc."
      • Vahenz, one of the heresy's ringleaders, is a freelance agent employed by the Hafn.
    • In "Extracurricular Activities": Meng is a double agent working for the Gwa, and the entire "rescue mission" is pointless, because the disappearance of their ship was them returning to the Gwa Reality.
    • In Raven Stratagem:
      • Cheris's mind isn't dead. She has Jedao's skills and memories, but remains the dominant personality between the two of them.
      • Cheris's master plan is to change the High Calendar itself to make calendric effects - such as the formation instinct and falling under Andan enthrallment - voluntary.
    • In Revenant Gun:
      • Jedao Two isn't even human, he's a moth in humanoid form.
      • Moths are sentient, and servitors are aware of this.
      • Dhanneth is the former commander of the swarm that Kujen put Jedao in charge of.
  • Revealing Skill: Jedao figures out that the officer in charge of the Fortress of Spinshot Coins is a Shuos deep-cover agent when she refuses to follow his orders despite formation instinct (which she, as a Shuos, doesn't possess).
  • Robot Buddy: Cheris is very friendly with servitors, and they help her and are friends with her in turn.
  • Running Gag:
    • In the letters from Vahenz to Liozh Zai, the former keeps complaining and joking about the inane naming conventions of the new calendar the heretics are setting up.
    • The various unrealistic things that happen in the dramas Cheris watches.
    • The four hundred Kel jokes, some of which we actually get to hear.
  • Sapient Ship: All moths are sentient. Jedao's moth, The Revenant, is a Deadpan Snarker.
  • Sarcastic Confession:
    • When trying to get the heretics to let the fleet in, Jedao has Cheris send a message that says he wants to destroy the Hexarchate. As it turns out, that's his actual goal.
    • In Raven Stratagem, Jedao jokes about being a desperate impostor. Cheris is speaking.
  • Science Fantasy: You have spaceships, space forts, guns and sentient servitors, but you also have shapeshifting shadows, possession and calendar-based Reality Warping.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: The Kel general who contacts Cheris to warn her and Jedao that the Kel Command is hanging them out to dry says this trope almost word for word.
  • Self-Duplication: The first weapon the heretics deploy is a radiant force multiplier, an exotic bomb that increases their number in a kaleidoscope-like way.
  • Serious Business: Calendar, thanks to its Reality Warping properties. By extension, maths - the reason Jedao decides that now is the time to rebel is that he finally has a host who can compensate for his own dyscalculia.
  • Sexual Extortion: It's mentioned that sexual relationships between Kel, especially Kel of different rank, are strictly forbidden, because the formation instinct means the junior Kel has no choice but to obey a superior, making it impossible for the sex to be truly consensual. Despite draconian punishments, and attempts to reduce the problem with libido-suppressing drugs and plenty of porn, it still happens quite frequently.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: "Extracurricular Activities" ends with Jedao's partner starting to undress him.
  • The Shadow Knows: People who belong to factions have shadows in the shape of their signifier - a version of the faction's symbol, details depending on individual personality. When Jedao is attached to Cheris, her shadow changes from being shaped like Ashhawk Sheathed Wings to Immolation Fox, letting everyone know who's accompanying her.
  • Shout-Out: In the fencing scene in Revenant Gun, Jedao's calendrical sword blade is, of course, red.
  • Show Within a Show:
    • The dramas that Cheris is watching with the servitors in her spare time.
    • In Raven Stratagem, it turns out the Andan are producing a biographical drama about Shuos Jedao. The reason this is mentioned is that for some reason, they decided to depict him in a positive light. The Vidona are, predictably, livid.
  • Signature Move: Each nexus fortress seems to have its own unique "special weapon". For Scattered Needles, it's the invariant ice; for Spinshot Coins, the phantom terrain.
  • Space Age Stasis: Upon being brought out of the black cradle, Jedao asks to show him all technological advancements since the last time he was out, several decades ago, and is disappointed to see only minor things have changed.
  • Split-Personality Takeover: In Raven Stratagem, Cheris's body has entirely been taken over by Jedao's mind. Apparently. She's actually Cheris with access to Jedao's memories and talents, Jedao's personality is completely dead, and she's impersonating him to take advantage of his reputation and his formation-instinct power over the Kel swarm.
  • State Sec: The Vidona are responsible for enforcing the Doctrine in the Hexarchate. They're noted as being the most dogmatic of the six factions, as they have to make sure the calendar is preserved.
  • Stylistic Suck: invoked Cheris's dramas are troperiffic and full of Hollywood Style.
  • Suddenly Voiced: Brezan is mildly freaked out when one of the Andan servitors suddenly speaks in human words, as he's used to them communicating by machine whirrs and bleeps.
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: The calendar isn't even considered magic, and all exotic effects and various calendars are calculated using advanced mathematics, to the point that understanding heretic calendar allows Cheris to create formations from scratch using equations.
  • Suicide Attack: Mikodez kills the other hexarchs by sending his own brother Istradez to blow himself up, although Istradez volunteered.
  • Symbiotic Possession: While Jedao is attached to Cheris and can speak in her head, he can't read her thoughts or control her body and his role is mostly advisory.
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.:
    • The letters sent from Vahenz to Liozh Zai show the state of affairs aboard the Fortress of Scattered Needles. They show the heretics in a far better light than any POVs on the Hexarchate side.
    • The two short stories are written from Jedao's perspective and they portray a character far more likeable and unambiguous than the Jedao we see from Cheris's perspective. Then again, the short stories are both set before the Hellspin Massacre.
  • Title Drop: Underplayed in Raven Stratagem, when Cheris's mother thinks of all the Mwennin legends she could've taught her daughter and refers one that's a rather clear metaphor for Jedao's actions.note 
    There were so many of the old stories she had not told her daughter. (...) The story of the raven general who sacrificed a thousand thousand of his soldiers to build a spirit bridge of birds to assault the heavens.
  • Torture Technician: Every single member of the Vidona is expected to at least have a theoretical knowledge of how to torture people, and most of them regularly do it.
  • Touch of Death: The Vidona faction ability is "deathtouch", which works by turning the target into flat piece of paper.
  • Transgender:
    • Meng and Zehun are non-binary, and referred to by "them".
    • Mikodez's sibling Istradez, born his sister, was body modded to be his double, and has completely adapted to being male.
    • Kel Brezan is a trans man.
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia: Jedao has only snippets and flashes of memories from the Hellspin Massacre as a result of what he did there.
  • Twincest: The mistress of Istradez, Mikodez's brother and double, requests a threesome with the identical siblings because she finds the idea interesting.
  • The Unintelligible: Most servitors "speak" in bleeps, whirrs and other machine noises, meaning few people can understand them.
  • Unplanned Crossdressing: In "Extracurricular Activities," when Jedao escapes the Gwa prison, he swaps clothes with the first person he manages to knock out - who happens to be a woman, leaving him, in his own words, a crossdressing enemy agent. His inability to be a convincing Gwa woman is a running gag (he keeps getting aghast stares and wonders if his hairstyle is to blame).
  • Uriah Gambit: Kel Command agrees to send Jedao to attack the Fortress of Scattered Needles in the hopes that he does something that would allow them to get rid of him.
  • Uterine Replicator: Crèche-born people are ones born from those. In present day, it's almost unheard of for a person to be natural-born, and many people have offspringnote  by donating their genetic material for the crèche.
  • Villain Episode: In Ninefox Gambit, the chapters written from Hexarchate perspective are sometimes interrupted by letters one heretic in the Fortress is sending to another.
  • Wacky Parent, Serious Child: Jedao's mother, it turns out. She's generally something of an eccentric - in "Extracurricular Activities," she sends him a tub of goose fat as a present and when he and his partner use it as a lubricant, he realizes she'll only send more if she every finds out what he did with it. He still adores her, though.
  • War Is Hell: Cheris loses thousands of soldiers and has to do some very questionable things to reclaim the fortress. It takes its toll on her, to say the least.
  • Weapon of Mass Destruction: The threshold winnower, one of the most dreaded weapon in the Kel arsenal, which turns every doorway and every bodily opening into a source of deadly radiation; fungal canisters, which destroy everything living on a planet as described in Raven Stratagem; and others (Nirai weapons designers are certainly not afraid of overkill).
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Jedao murdered a million people to have a shot at overthrowing the Hexarchate.
  • Wham Shot: "Jedao" easily shrugging off Tseya's attempt at enthrallment.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Mikodez decides that even if the other hexarch figure out how to become immortal, he won't join them, as he believes the psychological issues that come with it far outweigh the pluses.
  • With Friends Like These...: The various factions of the Hexarchate are always infighting, and the Kel Command is almost as dangerous to Cheris as the heretics in the Fortress of Scattered Needles are, if not more so.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: When Cheris, Jedao and their fleet retake the Fortress, the Kel Command shows up to execute them. Interestingly, it's implied heavily that Nirai Kujen had a hand in arranging this because he was attempting to strike before his co-conspirator could do this to him, as with Cheris's mathematical skill, Jedao doesn't need him any more.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: The Vrae Tala clause. It allows a Kel to shut down formation instinct, but kills them exactly one hundred days after it's activated.
  • Zero-Approval Gambit: Jedao deliberately massacred his people at Hellspin so that he'd be executed and put in the black cradle.
  • 0% Approval Rating:
    • Shuos Jedao, "thanks" to his actions at Hellspin Fortress, when he killed over one million people on both sides, is distrusted and disliked by absolutely everyone, though Cheris and her subordinates come to respect him for his genius.
    • Nirai Kujen keeps a much lower profile, but everyone who knows who he is would really like to have him assassinated. If they can figure out how.

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