Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Published June 14, 2016
Ninefox Gambit marks a couple of personal firsts for me. It’s the official start of my challenge to read all of this year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel (I read The Three-Body Problem, the first book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, earlier this month but its the final book that is nominated this year for Best Novel). It also marks my first venture into the military sci-fi subgenre. I had my doubts about the subgenre, wondering if the battles waged would be detrimental to the development of interesting three-dimensional characters, but as it turns out, I worried for nothing. Ninefox Gambit is an enjoyable and completely unique read, although not always easy to understand.
When Captain Kel Cheris bends the rules, using heretical tactics to save her teammates from death, she is disgraced and her team disbanded. However, Kel Command gives her a chance to redeem herself by taking part in a plot to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles from the heretics. To do so, she must ally with the undead Shuos Jedao, a tactician who has never lost a battle and may be able to successfully besiege the fortress. However, Jedao is remembered for going mad in his first life and murdering two armies, one of them his own. And he’ll be in Kel Cheris’ head the whole time.
The one issue I had with this book was that I felt it desperately needed either an extra paragraph in the synopsis that said something about the world, or a glossary to keep track of the character names, factions, and even maneuvers Yoon Ha Lee throws at the reader with limited explanation. Ninefox Gambit is one of those books that throws you into the deep end and hopes you can swim. Now this isn’t something that puts me off a book (I am a Dorothy Dunnett fan after all!), but it can make things difficult in a science-fiction setting where the reader is left to concentrate not just on the story but also on trying to figure out the make up and rules of an entirely new world with limited guidance.
Here’s the context I wish I had known when I started this novel. It’s set in the hexarchate, a far-future society that relies on advanced mathematics to produce a shared calendar that is more than just a measurement of time and that shapes everything. The large volume of people all adhering to the high calendar and celebrating the same holidays produces exotic effects that seem almost magical. However, the effects only work as long as everyone follows the same calendar. Since most of the hexarchate weapons and technology are exotic, dissidents can cripple hexarchate technology by changing the calendar and therefore the math that underlies reality. Dissidents, seen as heretics, are punished severely by the empire, destroyed whole planets at a time, so the hexarchate is perpetually at war.
The world has six different factions (hence hexarchate), including the technology-oriented Nirai who have knowledge of mathematics, the warrior Kel who routinely carry out dangerous and sometimes suicidal military missions, and the cunning, amoral Shuos who carry out intelligence and are responsible for strategy and tactics. If you’re interesting in reading Ninefox Gambit, I recommend checking out the author’s faction cheat sheet, published on his website by reader request, which looks really helpful for keeping the factions straight!
The world building is evidently really unique and well thought-out, I just didn’t feel like I had the context to grasp it all and it did detract from the reading experience for me. There is a lot to love about Ninefox Gambit though, especially the main characters.
Cheris is an instantly likable character. A mathematical genius, she has the ability to be one of the Nirai, the technology-oriented faction, but chooses to join the military Kel faction because she wants to be part of a team. Aside from being a female math genius and a skilled warrior(!), Cheris has a signifier, the Ashhawk Sheathed Wings, that means she’s very mentally stable, she is a mediocre duelist, and she unwinds by watching ridiculous dramas.
It’s her push and pull interactions with Shuos Jedao, the shifty imprisoned immortal General, that make the book for me. The relationship is one of necessity and mutual dependence. Cheris needs his tactics to stand a chance at her nearly impossible mission to retake the fortress, while for Jedao it presents an opportunity to to escape his immortal imprisonment in the bleak black cradle for a time, but does he have an ulterior motive? Cheris’ internal thoughts as she tries to determine how much she can trust this man and how much he is keeping from her are really interesting.
I really enjoyed Ninefox Gambit and I will definitely be hunting down the second book in the series, The Raven Strategem, which comes out in June. Part-way through the book I remarked that it was a cross between Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy and I hold to that, although I think there’s a dash of The Traitor Baru Cormorant in there as well. It adds up to a totally unique concoction and now that I’ve familiarized myself with the world, I can’t wait to see what Yoon Ha Lee does with it next! Recommended if you like your sci-fi political, smart, and sometimes complicated, but also a lot of fun.