Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. ★★★★
Trigger warning: rape
While it wasn’t until the last fifth or so that I felt definitely that I’d want to read the next book, there was always something about Ninefox Gambit that I found compelling. I’d be thinking about how military science fiction must not be my thing and at the same time planning designs for fan art. I think the explanation lies in the imaginative world Lee’s created and the nature of his principal characters.
Kel Cheris is a captain of the military division of the hexarchate, a totalitarian government of six divisions that is constantly putting down “heresies,” rebellions. When Cheris herself uses heretical methods in battle, she is given a last chance to possibly redeem herself by devising a plan on how to recapture an important fortress overtaken by heresy. She proposes bringing the Hexarchate’s greatest general out of storage. Shuos Jedao is a brilliant tactician who’s never lost a battle, but before being turned immortal by the Hexarchate, he went mad and killed his own army as well as the enemy’s. Yet, Shuos Jedao is entirely unpredictable, and Cheris and the troops she commands may be the next victims.
Have you ever heard of Clarke’s Law? It states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That may be the case with Ninefox Gambit. The hexarchate depends on calendrical technology, which is best as I can tell based on the belief and practices of the people of the hexarchate and possibly mathematical equations. Or the math may just be to utilize the effects of the technology? I still don’t completely understand it, but I was able to go along with it for the sake of the story. The main effects of the calendar seems to be the formations, troop arrangements that give supernatural advantages, and exotics, weapons that appear beyond the realms of science. The calendar reminds me more of a magic system than anything else, but it’s presented as far future technology. Hence, Clarke’s Law.
While the underpinnings of the universe could be hard for me to understand, Yoon La Hee has created an intriguing if grim vision of the far future. There’s difinately an Orwellian feel to the grand mechanisms of the government, including the Shuos ministry of information and their symbol – a nine tailed fox, with nine ever watching eyes. Cheris may use heretical formations and tactics to survive (possible thanks to her mathematical genius), but at first look she doesn’t appear to be someone used to questioning the hexarchate. After all, openly questioning the hexarchate results in brainwashing and reeducation. She’s also been programmed with a firm sense of loyalty to the command structure. There’s a detached, distance feel to her. While she mentions people from her past – her mother, an ex-girlfriend – she doesn’t appear to have any close relationships for the majority of Ninefox Gambit.
Jedao’s character was possibly the most fascinating mystery of Ninefox Gambit. There are hints that he may not be as mad as he seems and that he may have his own agenda. But what is it, and why did he slaughter his own army four hundred years ago?
While I came to care about both Cheris and Jedao, I never felt much of a connection to any of the secondary characters or to really get a feel of who they were beyond the basic descriptions. Some of them also felt hard to keep track of. However, my lack of emotional investment in them may have been a good thing, because this novel had one heck of a death rate.
The stellar and emotional ending has left me completely decided that I need to read book two. I look forward to seeing where the lead characters head in the future, and I’m hoping we’ll get a look at the culture and life outside of the military. I do recommend Ninefox Gambit to fans of science fiction (especially if they like military science fiction), but I’m not sure what non-genre readers would make of it given the steep learning curve at the beginning.
I received a copy of Ninefox Gambit from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.