Book Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Machineries of Empire
Publisher: Solaris (June 14, 2016)
Length: 384 pages
I’ll admit, I was somewhat torn on this one. On the one hand, there were parts in this book that gave me a real struggle, but on the other, there’s no doubt Ninefox Gambit is one of the most fascinating sci-fi novels I’ve ever read.
Step into the incredible universe of Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate, a civilization whose way of life is entirely dictated by an intricate calendar system. Mathematics is king, the governing force behind everything in this reality including physics and warfare. However, there’s also another side to this— and here’s where the lines between science fiction and fantasy start to blur—because in order for the calendar to function, the Hexarchate also requires belief. Throw enough calendrical heretics into the mix who observe a slightly different calendar, for example, and reality can suddenly go all awry. Say, the people might start acting erratically. Or your weapons might not work. As a result, the Hexarchate enforces its calendar with the utmost ruthlessness, bent on preventing such unpredictability from wreaking all kinds of havoc.
Thus explains how a Kel soldier named Cheris receives her next assignment. Expecting to be dismissed after a misconduct on the battlefield, Cheris is instead given the mission to recapture the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star base recently taken over by a population of heretics. To aid her in breaking the siege, Kel Command has extracted the digital ghost of a brilliant general and tactician named Shuos Jedao, grafting his consciousness to hers so that the two can work as one to deal with the situation. The only problem is, in life Jedao was a madman, recognized for his victories but also notorious for having killed more than a million people including his own soldiers. While the general has never lost a battle, can Cheris really trust this manipulative genius not to make her his next victim?
First, just let me first state unequivocally that this book contains some of the freshest, most inventive ideas I’ve ever encountered in sci-fi. Story concepts rooted in mathematics are often tricky, and they’ve never really been my strong point. But when your math is virtually indistinguishable from magic? Then yeah, I can definitely get behind that. Ninefox Gambit is no doubt breaking new ground in combining elements from multiple genres, and it is extremely clever.
However, I also mentioned feeling conflicted about the novel, and this is in large part due to its inconsistent pacing. In the beginning, the reader is dropped into this strange universe and left to flounder, and it’s easy to become confused and overwhelmed if you’re not paying close attention. It makes this one a rather challenging read, especially since the story goes nowhere fast. After all, we are talking about a siege here, and the fact that it happens in space doesn’t change the basis of this long and drawn out process. Still, bursts of action occur do here and there, probably just enough to keep me going, so that in the end I found myself in the awkward position of alternating between not wanting to put the book down and wanting it to be over already.
Still, irked as I was with this book at times, I have to say both Cheris and Jedao were brilliant. In my opinion, their relationship is where this novel shines, and not least because of their unique psychic connection; both characters come from interesting backgrounds, and their combined strengths and talents make them a force to be reckoned with. However, by that same token, their individual foibles also result in multiple clashes. As a Kel soldier, Cheris has been trained from the start to follow her “formation instinct”, an urge that encourages obedience, loyalty, and conformity. Giving up that compulsion in favor to another authority like Jedao is a challenge to everything she feels is natural and right, and it’s a struggle that gradually threatens her sanity.
Then there’s Jedao, whose mind I find both alluring and downright frightening. It’s no surprise that the story got interesting as soon as he entered the picture. He may spout things about war that make a lot of sense in a twisted and horrible kind of way, but that doesn’t change the fact he’s a merciless, stone cold-hearted bastard. And yet, despite being a complete psycho, the general’s character is also delightfully intriguing and complex. Many of my favorite scenes involve the conversations between him and Cheris, and perhaps against my better judgement, I wanted her to let him in.
Overall, I think I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if the beginning had eased me into the setting more gently, as opposed to throwing all its confusing concepts in my face. While I enjoyed the story itself, my patience was also tested by the pacing, which was all over the place. These issues aside though, I have to applaud the fantastic world-building and character development. Both these aspects were extraordinarily well put together, not to mention the concept of a Hexarchate that uses mathematical calculations and a calendar to govern itself is one of those things that make you gawp in wide-eyed wonder at its ingenuity. Ninefox Gambit might not be an easy read, but there’s also a lot to like if you’re willing to invest in it. As such, I probably wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone, but if you’re a sci-fi fan interested in something more innovative and unusual, then this might be exactly what you’re looking for.