In an advanced, multi-planetary empire replete with advanced technology and magical mysticism, Captain Kel Cheris finds herself resorting to heretical tactics to save her troops when she puts down a sacrilegious rebellion. Unfortunately, her superiors in Ninefox Gambit (2016) aren’t quite sympathetic to her play, choosing to use her as a tool to revive and serve as a bodily host to the immortal spirit form of General Shuos Jedao to save the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a religious stronghold that’s critical to the civilization’s magics. It would be a difficult enough task for Cheris since the rebels have taken and are now defending what was supposed to be an impregnable fortress — but did I mention that Jedao is utterly, completely insane?
Jedao’s condition makes his interplay with Cheris particularly interesting. As the rebellion grows in power, Cheris is forced to rely on Jedao’s expertise and military training to advance her mission, but it seems that Jedao enjoys stymieing her efforts and routinely irritating her. A few chapters after Jedao’s appearance, I’ve been hooked by Jedao’s personality and his past. Yoon Ha Lee has created a fascinating cast with a colorful history and isn’t afraid to mix in stories from the past to expand on current themes and readers’ understandings of the world of Ninefox Gambit. Cheris especially has a very unique voice, and at no point did I find the dialogue or prose lacking. This make Ninefox Gambit a creative, complex story that, if not quite action filled at every turn, is enthralling for the internal struggles, mind games, and character development.
Yoon Ha Lee has also mastered the art of writing politics. Throughout Ninefox Gambit, plots within plots, treasons within treasons, and above all, dreaded heresies abound; it’s reminiscent of the complexity in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. There’s plenty of material to keep you guessing as you turn every page, and just when I thought all the plotting was over, Lee throws in more surprises. This is a style that I love personally – but it may not be for everyone.
The major downfall of Ninefox Gambit is that it feels very much like an info-dump. Lee has created a world so unlike our own that it’s necessary to constantly explain foreign concepts and abstract alien ideas to the reader. The first few chapters were a slow, painful slog just because Lee didn’t explain all the nuances of the Ninefox Gambit universe in the first two pages, so there was a steep learning curve for most of the novel. This definitely messed with the pacing in Ninefox Gambit at times, so the slow sections felt very slow.
Math is also a crucial component in Ninefox Gambit. Not having much of a math background, I can’t tell if most of it is real math, what with all the fancy names and models sprinkled throughout in the story. This makes the book feel a bit geeky, but if you enjoyed, say, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, then this is the right book for you. If not, I’m not really sure I would recommend Ninefox Gambit.
I’m just going to add my two cents here, as a heretic who refuses to conform to the calendrical hierarchy that forms the basis of this mathematical military hard SF space opera with some gender-bending thrown in for extra flavoring. Ninefox Gambit has drawn favorable comparisons to Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lighting, because this book not only throws you off the deep end, but chains you up in neologisms, a complex future society that is not gift-wrapped neatly with a bow, and then chucks you in the magma of an intergalactic battle between the Hexarchate and heretics who refuse to follow the consensus reality, which powers the exotic technology and weaponry with which this empire maintains its vice-grip on its subjects. As others have observed, replace high-level mathematical formulae with magical spells, and voila, you’ve got a space-fantasy novel.
Of course Ninefox Gambit is far more complicated than that, but the basic story is of Kel soldier Charis teaming up with an immortal, homicidal, and totally insane undead general named Shuos Jedao to put down a heretical rebellion that has captured the supposedly-impregnable Fortress of Scattered Needles. Great names throughout, by the way, for that classical Three Kingdoms Chinese-fable feel but plugged into a hyper-militaristic future empire. You can react one of two ways — either your mind will rebel at the relentless stream of weird and confusing neologisms and mid-stream action opening sequence and say, “WTF was that?” Or … no that’s probably the standard response. The question then becomes, “Do I stick with it and hope that things will fall into place in time?” or “Do I ditch this book even though everyone is raving about how brilliant it is and I don’t want to be the loser who couldn’t handle the steep learning curve?”
Well, one thing about audiobooks is that even if you’re in way over your head, unlike in the print version where eventually you just cannot carry on any further, unless you click stop the audiobook keeps playing. And since 11 hours isn’t really THAT long, once you’ve gone halfway it would be silly to give up, so just let those bizarre events flow past your ears, and pluck a couple words here and there and try to figure them out. I found the exchanges between Charis and Jedao to be the most interesting, and the exotic and muddled futuristic battle sequences and protected siege to be the most boring. I mean, who couldn’t love an insane undead homicidal general who doesn’t even act apologetic for killing a million people and shooting his own officers in cold blood? Now that’s a character that will stay in your memory for a while.
Charis is a much more measured person, a soldier who is trying to do her duty, but knowing she is playing with a primal force that cannot be contained but is a “necessary evil,” that old chestnut. I found interesting echoes of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, particularly, in the subtle subversion of genders that are casually sprinkled at random moments. Yes, we’re pretty sure Charis is female and Jedao used to be male (he’s just a computer program now), and as audiobook narrator Emily Woo Zeller chooses to use “cigar-chomping drill sergeant” for every male military character, it’s clear from the voices who should be male and who female. But then out of nowhere sexual scenes don’t play out in the usual way, and there is the same obsession with gloves and the military found in Ancillary Justice. Is this a “thing” now? I hadn’t realized.
In any case, I haven’t even bothered to describe the plot because a) it’s quite complicated, b) Kevin has done that already, and c) I just don’t have the discipline this time. But suffice to say I was of two minds about Ninefox Gambit. One the one hand, I did like how Yoon Ha Lee just decided “screw it, I won’t explain anything – you do the work.” But that puts a lot of stress on the reader/listener, and if the events you are describing are not gripping (like Dune, for instance, equally baroque and complex but also a rip-roaring space opera extravaganza), then your attention is going to wander … like a heretic! So I found myself stopping and rewinding again and again, over and over, till I decided it wasn’t worth doing that anymore. And while I struggled to follow the storyline at many points, I appreciated the exotic world-building and mathematical magic, and the love-hate relationship of Charis and Jedao.