Ninefox Gambit-Yoon Ha Lee

NinefoxGambit

“Seven, Subcommand Two said. “Do you have anything better to suggest?”

Cheris didn’t look at the ninefox’s eyes. “Five suggested one weapon,” she said. “I can do better. You can win this with one man.”

She had their attention.

“Specify,” Subcommand Two said. It knew. What other gambit could she have brought to the table?

“General Shuos Jedao.” There. She had said it.

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Solaris

Date of Publication: June 14, 2016

Kel Cheris is an infantry captain of the Hexarchate, known for her unconventional use of formation tactics in the Hexarchate’s perpetual war against heretical doctrines that periodically arise to threaten their long-established hegemony. A mathematical prodigy, Cheris’ talents are wasted in the infantry, but Kel are soldiers, and as such, her duty is to serve. Yet her capabilities are not long overlooked by her superiors, and when the Fortress of Scattered Needles falls to a faction of heretics believed long eradicated, Kel Cheris is tasked with the mission of retaking the fortress before its loss causes irreparable harm to the Calendar by which all in the Hexarchate live. Her proposed solution to the problem is as unconventional as it is controversial—General Shuos Jedao.

In his time, Shuos Jedao was a strategist of unparalleled skill and his tactics entirely suited to the task at hand. Long deceased, his consciousness was preserved in the Black Cradle, a device that made him immortal, yet incorporeal. Using him is the best chance of retaking the fortress and thus bolstering the defenses of the Hexarchate against a looming invasion by the Hafn. Yet two caveats face Cheris at the prospect of working with Jedao. The first—his motivation, as he has no love for the Hexarchate he once served. The second—he is most certainly insane. For the Black Cradle is not only an immortality device—it’s a prison designed to punish the Hexarchate’s greatest traitor for all eternity.

Paired with Jedao as his corporeal host, Kel Cheris must utilize his brilliance while safeguarding both her mission and her sanity from the brilliant General’s influence. As the fight to retake the fortress progresses, Cheris discovers that while Jedao may be the monster she’s been warned of, he may not be the monster that needs fearing. Defeating the heretics and unravelling the mystery surrounding his past will lead to questions concerning their future path and the true agenda of the Hexarchate.

***

Arthur C. Clarke’s third law states that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” With Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee has accepted the challenge and crafted a novel of stunning audacity, bursting the conventions of traditional Space Opera/Military Science Fiction. In the process, Lee has crafted a genre-bender of sorts, blending traditional science fiction with elements of the fantastical. Whether it works for the reader depends on their willful suspension of disbelief and the concordant ability to blur the line between Fantasy and Science Fiction.

In Ninefox Gambit, we’re introduced to a society where technology is subject to the quasi-religious belief of its inhabitants, what Lee describes as, “The Calendar”, both figuratively and literally their system of perceiving time and space and the mathematical principles sustaining it. Since the fall of the Fortress of Scattered Needle, a space habitat that defends their border and sustains the calendar over a large portion of their empire, “calendrical rot” has set in, where the weapons and tactics of the Hexarchate have become either weaker or non-existent.

A stable calendar is essential to the functioning of the Hexarchate, as their technology is concordant with belief in a certain set of constants, such as the 24 hour system of gauging time. If a dissident faction creates a system using a different calendar, some technology no longer works, while those “exotic” weapons and devices linked to the new calendrical system will. Formation tactics work in a similar manner, in that the placement of troops or ships in a given situation and rigid adherence to that formation affects the strength of their attack and the effectiveness of their weaponry. Soldiers of the Hexarchate rely on lists of different formations—a standardized playbook—to wage war, and non-standard formations create unexpected effects that are generally discouraged. It’s a rigid system of warfare, combining a blend of Numerology and Feng Shui with a large element of “handwavium” to achieve their goals.

Battles are won and lost by the use of quasi-magical devices such as the carrion glass bomb, reducing its victims to shards of glass containing their memories, amputation guns firing an arcing beam in which victims limbs literally fall off, and that most devastating of weapons, the threshold winnower, whose effects are terrifying, ghastly, and beyond human comprehension. The use of exotic weapons and formations to wage warfare is as analogous to magic as to make a mockery of the appeals to science and mathematical formulas the characters claim as the basis of their technology. Not surprisingly, it’s the least convincing element of the novel.

Yet this sufficiently advanced magic disguised as technology—and let’s not quibble, this is good old-fashioned magic dressed up as science for Hallowe’en—constitutes a unique take on the norms by which we assume technology should work, and in these days of Wi-Fi and virtual reality environments, kudos must be given the author for thinking so far beyond of the conventional.

The world-building of Ninefox Gambit is both complex and inscrutable. There are six factions of the Hexarchate, seven if you include the long eradicated Liozh, and each performs a specialized function in the proper functioning of their empire:

  • The Kel, to whom Cheris belongs, are the grunts, the military with which the Hexarches keep order. The reader learns early on that the Kel are conditioned to be unquestioningly obedient, up to and beyond the point of sacrificing themselves to accomplish their mission.
  • The Shuos, responsible for strategic planning. They’re the schemers, always taking a long view, attempting to influence the rest of the factions into furthering their goals.
  • The Nirai, who oversee much of the technological evolution of the Hexarchate. They’re the engineers.
  • The Rahal, essentially the government overseers, responsible for the maintenance of the Calendar.
  • The Vidona, specializing in indoctrination and stamping out heresy. They’re the commissars of the Hexarchate, enforcing doctrine at the end of a gun.
  • The Andan, whose purview is both culture and finance. They hold the purse-strings, giving them an outsize influence within the Hexarchate.

And finally we come to the Liozh, the seventh faction, the philosophers and ethicists, perhaps the most interesting of the factions. Eradicated for advocating the heresy of Democracy, their enduring influence continues to frustrate the Hexarches and encourage their foes.

Lee reveals the motivations of the various factions in a piecemeal manner, so it’s best to keep a running track of who’s who and which faction they represent if the reader wants to keep from getting confused. Luckily, most characters use their faction as a surname (see Kel Cheris or Shuos Jedao), which makes it somewhat easier to divine their motivations, although a glossary would have come in handy at times.

As to the characters, Yoon Ha Lee does an exemplary job of fleshing out both Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao, but is somewhat deficient regarding ancillary characters. Early on the reader meets the captain of Cheris’ Cindermoth(command ship), Kel Nerevor, who seems as though she might have a major role to play in the course of the novel, yet she’s casually tossed aside just as she’s getting interesting.

Cheris and Jedao are both portrayed sympathetically, she a slave to her training as a Kel, but still imaginative enough to embrace borderline heretical doctrine, and he a cold tactician willing to throw away the lives of those around him, but only if the benefits outweigh the cost. Seemingly heartless, we’re given a window into his motivations that belies this notion. He’s a villain with depth of character that will hopefully be fleshed out in the next installment.

Lee also introduces readers to the Servitors, autonomous and sentient A.I. forms that serve menial roles within the Hexarchate. They act as servants within the Hexarchate, but are well aware of their status as virtual slaves, and share a subculture their masters show little appreciation for. However, it becomes apparent that the servitors have their own agenda, one not necessarily in line with that of their masters and worthy of further exploration.

Ninefox Gambit is not a particularly easy read, but with some perseverance, readers will come away with an appreciation of the author’s audacious take on the conventions of the genre. It’s as if the author has written a fantasy novel encased in a sci-fi binding, a daunting task to be sure, yet one that puts an interesting spin on what would otherwise be a commonplace Space Opera. Ninefox Gambit has been nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Best Novel award this year, and while this reader doesn’t see it reaching quite those heights, the novel does constitute an entirely readable debut, one that the author will hopefully build on with Raven Stratagem, the second of the Machineries of Empire series.

Yoon Ha Lee’s author website can be found at http://www.yoonhalee.com.

Mogworld-Yahtzee Croshaw

mogworld

“Me, I’m just here for a nice clean death, and Dub said he can give me one.  I don’t care who ends up running the world.  I just want it to stop being my problem.” ~Jim Bottomroach.

Life was so much simpler for Jim Bottomroach when he was dead.  Being undead, now that was a trick.  Killed during a skirmish between St. Gordon’s Magical College and the warrior schools of Stragonoff over a mystical stone that doesn’t exist, Jim was quite satisfied to join the stone in its nonexistence.  His two years of magical college hadn’t amounted to much.  Learning just three spells, the most useful—and by extension most entertaining—being one that would turn a rival into a rabbit (momentarily).  Just that would be enough to turn anyone off the magic business.  Jim had begun to seriously regret his career choice in the moments before a training war hammer knocked his soul right out of his body.

And that’s where it should have ended, all bright light and life reflection and then nothing.

However, things never turn out how they should, as Jim quickly learns (well, okay, 60 years later is not all that quick) when he’s resurrected by the necromancer Dreadgrave, who seeks to create an undead army to pillage the land around his impenetrable “Doom Fortress”.  Jim is quickly impressed into this undead army of the unwilling and put in charge of the rat pit, a rather unsavory fate–or savory, from the rat’s point of view–for any adventurers caught raiding Dreadgrave’s (impenetrable?) compound.  Distraught at his fate, Jim promptly jumps from the first tower he can climb.

Imagine his surprise to find that yes, he can die again, but no, it just won’t take.  Sure, his body is in worse shape, an eyeball here, a lung over there, but his consciousness is as intact as his body isn’t.  From then on, Jim’s goal is to search for a permanent means of death.  In the meantime, unlife goes on, until that fateful day a horde of angels descend from the sky and delete the Doom Fortress, Dreadgrave and all, yet somehow missing Jim and two others.  Meryl is an overly earnest young woman (she’s been dead as long as Jim, but she died young) and Thaddeus is a religious zealot who considers himself and the others to be a blasphemy against God.

It’s no small irony that only when they’ve stopped running and have a moment to think, Jim realizes his missed opportunity to end it all.  During the course of their flight, Jim discovers that while he returns to his body in a slightly more damaged state, for the past fifteen years, anyone else who dies is resurrected in a new body, a phenomenon people have come to call “The Infusion.”  Nobody dies permanently, not people, not cows, not blades of grass.  However, no births occur either.  So life goes on, perpetually and death doesn’t have the cache it used to.  Especially when you’re not granted a new body, and technically aren’t alive.

But fate isn’t done kicking Jim and his cohorts around just yet.  There’s a new Vicar in town, name of Barry, and he’s been endowed with almost God-like powers by the great God Si-Mon.  He’s also got it in his mind that Jim and his fellow undead are an aberration that Si-Mon requires be deleted to make the world right again.  At this point, Jim realizes that he’s not just fleeing aimlessly; he’s on a quest.  Defeat Barry and the great God Si-Mon by restoring the laws of nature, and by extension, find a way to die permanently.

Jim is helped along the way by a rogue adventurer/dolt by the name of Slippery John, who suggests his best bet to correct the natural order lies with the Magic Resistance, a group of sorcerers whose motivations parallel his own.  Especially the necromancers, who are finding it hard to get good help when no one stays dead.  Slippery John has his own motivation for tagging along, namely to find a cure for his beloved Drylda, who’s suffering from a malady known as the “Syndrome.”  The Syndrome only seems to attack adventurers, causing them to strike heroic poses and become obsessed with completing quests, right up until they become catatonic.  However, some might say Drylda’s catatonic state explains Slippery John’s “date rapey” interest in her.  So, add finding a cure for the Syndrome to Jim’s to-do list.

As a final obstacle to their quest, the adventurer’s guild has sicced a pair of stone cold murderers on their trail to find the Magic Resistance and stop their efforts.  Questing is good business, after all. Summing it up, Jim simply has to find the Magical Resistance, enlist them to help him change the laws of nature while dodging the attentions of the Adventurer’s Guild and simultaneously find a cure for the Syndrome.  If he weren’t already dead, I’m sure Jim would wish he was.

One other thing—every time Jim dies, he sees words in the air, disturbing words that make him question existence, or what he thinks it is.  Once he finally realizes what’s going on, what existence really is, that’s when the book really pays off.  It’s also a spoiler I’m not willing to reveal.  You’ll figure it out, especially if you figure out what MOGWORLD really means.

Reading MOGWORLD, I’m reminded of Tom Holt, Christopher Moore, Robert Asprin or maybe A. Lee Martinez, all authors who’ve put their stamp on the genre of comedic fantasyMogworld has the same quirky sense of humour and horror I found while reading any of the above authors, but especially Tom Holt, an author for whom reality is usually just a mask disguising what’s really going on.  Both hilarious and touching, Jim’s exploits to become “just” dead reveal a character that’s not nearly as nihilistic as he’d like you to think.

Just look at how he interacts with his fellow travellers.  Jim’s outward disdain for Meryl cannot mask his concern for her well-being.  Given several chances to leave her to her fate, he never actually does.  Time and again he suggests Thaddeus lay off all the “smite this” and “aberration that” but never kicks the former minister out of the party. Drylda and Slippery John really aren’t his problem, nor is finding a solution to the Infusion when he can simply let Barry delete him, but his desire to die permanently is always put behind the welfare of the world.  Jim chooses time and again to dodge the death he claims to welcome in his quest to fix the world.

Yahtzee Croshaw’s debut novel is hilariously entertaining.  I went into it thinking it was just going to be an interesting take on the sword and sorcery genre, focusing on a character that generally doesn’t get the limelight, just like Star Trek’s redshirts, or any super villain’s henchmen. You won’t be disappointed, especially if you’re a fan of the underdog, or find yourself rooting for the zombies at the movies.  If you’ve ever spent hours down at the arcade playing Gauntlet or long nights of misspent youth at D & D sleepovers, then this novel is for you.  If not, well, it’s still for you, because it’s a delightful look at the henchmen whose job it is to make the heroes look good.

As Jim put it himself, he doesn’t want to be a hero, just a protagonist.

A++

Sherlock Holmes and the Zombie Problem–Nick S. Thomas

“It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Sherlock Holmes was distinguished.”~Dr John Watson.

 

 

 

 

Zombies are the least of the problems encountered in Sherlock Holmes and the Zombie Problem by author Nick S. Thomas.  Bad writing can usually be overcome by a decent plot, but sometimes you run into stuff like this:

“Shocked and in fear I stumbled to my feet and withdrew across the room, two more shots rang out from Holmes’ gun, one hitting the attacker in the shoulder, the other missing, it had no effect.”

 or this:

 “I ripped the cabinet open, taking up my recently purchased rifle, a wonder I now was pleased to have purchased just a few months before, an 1881 model Marlin under lever rifle, kept for this very type of situation which I had hoped to never face but prepared for anyway.”

Let me just say that if you’re not willing to write proper sentences, then I am not willing to read your book. 

It’s a shame really, as the idea of Sherlock Holmes fighting a Zombie horde unleashed upon him by the nefarious James Moriarty is something I’m totally on-board with.  A great idea, but in this case so poorly executed that (for the first time ever) I could not finish the novel. 

That’s how bad it is. 

If you can’t write a page without a run on sentence, then I would suggest either a refresher course in grammar, finding a half decent editor–or a career change.

John Dies at the End–David Wong

“And watch out for Molly.  See if she does anything unusual.  There’s something I don’t trust about the way she exploded and then came back from the dead like that.” ~David Wong.

Man, no kidding.  Having your dog explode can sure mess with a dude’s head.  Yet that is far from the weirdest thing that happens in David Wong’s sadistically, hilariously, horrifying(ly) great novel, John Dies at the End.

I finished this novel a couple of weeks back, but still feel like I have a hangover.  The good kind, like when you wake up after a night of drinking, roll over, and there’s a beautiful brunette lying beside you.  The kind of hangover that’s worth it.  Having said that, trying to describe this book, hell, even just a brief synopsis, seems an impossible task.  Bear with me–maybe I should start at the beginning.

So, there’s these two dudes, David Wong and the aforementioned John, living the lives of your average twenties.  McJob down at the video store, partying in their spare time, trying to meet hot chicks that are willing to, if not have sex with them, at least talk to them.  Well, Dave is–John doesn’t seem to have much of a problem in that department.  He’s in a band, and as we all know, when you’re barely out of your teens, shit like that seems cool.  Especially to the ladies.

John also likes to party, never having seen a drug he’s been unwilling to try.  After what might be called the “worst trip in history” courtesy of a Rastafarian drifter (whose magic tricks are suspiciously convincing) they meet at a local bush party, life for these two slackers will never be the same again. *Note to reader–never put your buddy’s used syringe in your pocket.

You see, the drug,”soy sauce,” doesn’t just mess you up–it breaks down the wall between Universes and makes a laughingstock of the rules of time.  Oh, and it’s alive.

Next thing you know, both Dave and John are down at the police station answering questions from some very perturbed cops trying to explain why they have five dead (gruesomely dead) and four missing, courtesy of  a party they know John was at.  Dave is tripping pretty good, reading the cop’s mind (Morgan Freeman, he calls him) and worrying about Jennifer Lopez (real name, not the actress), the girl he has a crush on and also one of the missing.  At that point, “Morgan” steps out of the room (apparently John has died and it’s not even the end) and Dave realizes the other cop is not what he seems.  Being attacked by a mustache (yep, you read that right) will do that to you.

From there it’s a blistering ride as Dave manages to escape the jailhouse, return to the scene of the crime, find a dog (who at one point appears to be possessed by John), get shot, get abducted to Vegas with the other missing by an acolyte of “Korrok” (more on him later), witness the creation of a wormhole to another Universe and manage to close the wormhole with the help of a preacher turned magician (Dr. Albert Marconi) and a stirring rendition of a song by John’s band Three Armed Sally: “Camel Holocaust.”  That’s just the first act.

Korrok is the villain of the tale, either an elder god along the lines of Cthulu…or a sentient biological computer run amok in an alternate Universe.  Either way, it wants into our Universe and if Dave, John, and a few other players cannot thwart its plans…well, we’re all fucked.  Korrok has agents everywhere, known as the shadow people, has replaced many of the residents of “Undisclosed” with what can only be called replicants, and an acolyte with the charming nickname of “Shitload” trying to advance its agenda of Universal domination.  All of them.

Of course, there is a girl, Amy, the one-handed sister of big Jim Sullivan (deceased) and probably the only reason Dave will do his best to save the world–not that he knew this when he first met her.

I’m not doing justice to the story with this abbreviated synopsis, but it’s just too convoluted to sum up succinctly and there’s no need to spoil the fun for you.  I will say that John Dies at the End meanders at times, and reads like just a bunch of stuff that happened to these two dudes, although technically it’s Dave telling his story to a skeptical journalist.  Having been written haphazardly as a series of blog posts since 2001 and ballooning into a 466 page book by the time of its publishing, it seems an understandable complaint–and yet bears no relevance to whether the reader will enjoy the novel.

From start to end it’s a huge mindf*ck (sorry, I can’t think of a better term), and every time you think you’ve got your head wrapped around the storyline, something happens to make you question where the hell this is going and what actually happened before.  I was within a hundred pages of the end of the novel and began to get worried that there was no satisfactory way to tie up the loose ends in the amount remaining.  Really worried.

And then he did it.

One spoiler…if John dies at the end, then it’s not at the end of this book. David Wong claims to be hard at work on the sequel but for now we’ll have to be satisfied by the upcoming movie.

Agent to the Stars: John Scalzi

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi is the first novel I someday hope to write.  Started as what he calls, “a practice novel” (that novel everyone tries just to see if they can do it) back in 1997 and posted to his website as “shareware” (from the preface),  there it sat, gathering fans until 2005, when he was contacted by a publisher (every writers dream) and an initial run was printed by Subterranean Press.  This time around, Agent to the Stars has been picked up in paperback format by TOR.

Now Scalzi is not new to writing, beginning his career as a film critic and humour columnist, later becoming a freelance writer and author.  Since 2005, when Agent to the Stars became his second published novel ( Old Man’s War beat Agent out of the gate by mere months but it can be accurately claimed to be his second novel), Scalzi has focused on follow-ups to OMW and his personal blog entitled “Whatever“.  So, he’s had some practice.  However, that doesn’t detract from the impressive quality of a novel he wrote on a lark.

As to the story:

Suppose you’re a member of an alien society wanting to make first contact with the silly little creatures that inhabit the third planet around a very average G-type (aka yellow dwarf) star.  Then suppose you’ve tapped into all the random information (specifically television and movies) they’ve been broadcasting into space for the past century or so.  For every E.T.  you watch, there’s a Thing, or more specific to the Yherajk (as you call yourselves), a little movie called, The Blob.  Well, you might have second thoughts about the whole thing, based on the apparent xenophobia exhibited by the local populace.  However, if you’ve spent the time and energy to come half way across the galaxy, you’re not going to let a little paranoia get in the way of first contact.  The question is how to make a good first impression?  The answer…hire a great publicist!

That, in essence, is the premise of Agent to the Stars.

When Tom Stein, an up and coming talent agent is told he has a meeting with the head of the agency, he expects that Carl Lupo (legendary agent and owner of the agency) is going to congratulate him on his latest deal.  Tom certainly doesn’t expect to take a meeting with some gelatinous goo named Joshua, sitting on the table in an aquarium.  Once he gets over the initial shock of first contact with an alien that resembles a bad b-film monster (and incidentally, smells like ass), Carl sets forth a proposition.  Find a way to market the Yherajk to humanity, a way to gently introduce the populace to a genuinely agreeable alien society wrapped in very unpleasant form.  No big deal for one of the hottest talent agents in Hollywood, right?

And with that, Tom takes home Joshua (in a water jug) to brainstorm ideas on how not to spook the entire human race when the time comes to introduce the  new neighbours.  The answer they come up with is a doozy.

If there were any comparison to make to other first contact stories, I would equate Agent to the Stars to E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, only with a really, really uncute alien.  The refreshing thing about this novel is the lack of any sinister motive.  There’s no desire on the part of the Yherajk to ingratiate themselves into earth’s society only to round earthlings up to process into tasty treats.  They don’t want our water, or to subjugate the planet.  I spent most of the novel expecting that overused plot device to crop up, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that the Yherajk have no ulterior motive.  Of course, there is also the comedic element of this entirely benign alien society that resembles something from our worst nightmares. 

The cast of secondary characters are well thought out, from Tom’s feisty assistant Miranda, to Jim Van Doren, the mildly slimy, yet talented journalist who has no idea where his snooping will eventually take him (Let’s just say, it’s not Kansas).  There’s also Michelle Beck, Tom’s biggest client, a beautiful actress long on legs but short on intelligence.  Unfortunately, she wants to stretch those legs, insisting that he get her a casting of substance, regardless of talent.  As if Tom doesn’t have enough on his plate, what with that whole, “introducing an alien species to mankind,” thing…he’s got to keep a spoiled (yet loveable) actress happy.  Which will prove harder?

By the end of the novel, Scalzi’s got the whole situation wrapped up in a satisfying bow (no spoilers here, thank you!).  Agent to the Stars is so much fun that the reader (well, this reader) couldn’t put it down, and deserves a place of note in a genre where (usually) the only good alien is a dead alien.  Very refreshing and well worth the time.