Ninefox Gambit

Broken Forum has a thread in which the posters regularly list the works that are nominated every year for the Hugo and Nebula awards. Despite being nominally a science-fiction fan, it has been years since I’ve kept myself up to date with these picks so I thought I’d mix up my reading of older novels with newer releases. This one has the added benefit of not being too difficult to read as it’s described as being military science-fiction. In fact, one poster even likened it to the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

The book’s main character is Kel Cheris, an infantry captain who serves a star-spanning government known as the hexarchate. As befits its name, this political entity is divided into six faction. The Kel in particular appear to be shock troops and Cheris distinguishes herself due to her mathematical ability and flexibility of thought. When a vital fortress is lost due to rebellion, deemed heretics by the leaders, Kel Command decides to send Cheris to retake it. However it is not Cheris’ own leadership skills that are called for. Instead she is to serve as the living host of a legendary general, Shuos Jedao, who otherwise exists only as a shade entombed in the Black Cradle when he is not being put to use. Jedao is a war leader who has never lost a battle, yet in his last engagement in life he betrayed his own side and massacred his entire command staff, earning him the title of the hexarchate’s greatest traitor.

Ninefox Gambit is full of new terminology with words that are evidently chosen to fire the imagination and evoke nightmarish visions but are never truly explained anywhere in the text. The novel for example opens in media res with a battle in which Cheris’ unit takes fire from both bullets and eelfire, whatever that is, and when other weapons prove ineffective, she orders her soldiers to whip out calendrical swords. The horrific effects of the anti-personnel threshold winnowers are described but we never learn how they work. All ships are called some variety of moth, i.e. box moths, banner moths etc., which seems to describe their basic shape though they also appear to have some shape-changing capability. This novel is in sore need of a glossary but none is forthcoming. A great deal of text also goes on describing the emblems, colors, mottoes and uniforms of the different factions. Combined with how all rebels are deemed heretics, you can see why this world that writer Yoon Ha Lee bears more than a passing resemblance to the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

The writing is taut, there is plenty of action and intrigue plus the psychological games between Cheris and Jedao gives the novel some depth. The hexarchate at large attributes Jedao’s killing spree to a fit of madness and has spent considerable resources in attempting to cure him but Cheris is ordered to keep watch of him and naturally she fears for her own sanity as well. It turns out that Jedao’s true specialty is in languages and psychological manipulation as he demonstrates the ability to completely break down a person using words alone. As Cheris is in effect his jailer, it comes as no surprise that she is also a target of his manipulations. Still, this isn’t enough to elevate the novel into the domain of serious science-fiction. In fact, much of it feels like fantasy under a veneer of technology. One of the cool ideas is that the hexarchate wages calendrical warfare. They manipulate the rules of physics using a sort of state religion and this in turn allows them to employ exotic technologies that are in effect magical rituals. The problem is that enforcing doctrine involves state-mandated festivals, ritualized torture and perhaps even sacrifices. The hexarchate is certainly no utopia.

Despite the intrigue and multiple levels of betrayals, there is no real surprise in the direction that the plot goes either. When the story begins, Cheris is fiercely loyal to the hexarchate but readers are more likely to be repulsed when we learn that loyalty is indoctrinated through Kel formation instinct. This allows their troops to wield strange effects, like a force field, while they stay in formation but also compels them to obey orders from a recognized superior, even suicidal orders. Given this setup, the truth of Jedao’s betrayal isn’t much of a twist either. I’m also disappointed with the world-building. It has a sort of game-like quality in that we’re given lots of details that are relevant for military operations, but we have next to no idea what ordinary life is like in this universe. We know that the hexarchate shares borders with competing powers and the heretics expect support from the Hafn but we have zero idea who they are, not even whether they are aliens.

On the whole I’d agree that Ninefox Gambit is a well-executed, highly enjoyable space opera. I was especially struck by how hip it feels, with its cleverly chosen terminology. In the end though it’s a fairly lightweight novel, basically science-fiction junk food. There’s nothing wrong with liking that as my period of infatuation with David Weber’s Honor Harrington series can attest, but I generally prefer something more substantial these days so I probably won’t be reading the rest of what now appears to be a series. I will be disappointed if this wins the best novel awards but I doubt that it will.

One last point of interest is that Cheris is a woman whose body now includes both her original personality as well as that of a much older man. One can’t read that without noting the parallel with the writer himself. Yoon Ha Lee is, as far as I know, a Korean American trans man who is married with a husband. This aspect of the character isn’t really explored in this novel beyond some tricks with gender pronouns as Cheris and Jedao become more of a singular entity but I suspect that it will be the subject of future sequels.

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