“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
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.