Yours In Calendrical Heresy: A Review of Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit

…aka, the book that makes a SpecChic with a phobia of math really like math.

Ninefox Gambit (2016)
Written by: Yoon Ha Lee
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 384 (Kindle)
Series: Book One of The Machineries of Empire
Publisher: Solaris Books

Why I Chose It: The first editorial review on Amazon is a glowing endorsement by Alastair Reynolds, who writes some of the most imaginative and brilliantly creative science fiction out there. If he recommends a book, I read it. Not to mention the heresy talk made my Warhammer 40,000 ears prick a little.

The premise:

When Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for her unconventional tactics, Kel Command gives her a chance to redeem herself, by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles from the heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake: if the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.

Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress. The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own.

As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao — because she might be his next victim.

Mostly Mild Spoilers Lurk Within

Brace yourself. You’re about to get kicked in the teeth. What’s more, you’re going to like it.

Discussion: Science fiction is a unique place to inhabit, because as the writer you’re tasked with not only telling a good story, an arduous undertaking in and of itself, but doing so within a fabric that no one has ever experienced before. The universe you weave becomes as powerful as any character moving around within it, in essence becoming its own character. While this can certainly be true with mainstream fiction, the main difference is that when you set your story in space, you’re building that setting character from scratch. You’re not just a storyteller. You’re a world builder.

And Yoon Ha Lee isn’t just a good storyteller — he’s also a damned good world builder.

Ninefox Gambit is one of those rare gems that not only emphatically owns and inhabits a fully realized alien world that we know nothing about, but it trusts the reader to unpack and interpret that universe without any hand-holding. The main character, Cheris, is not a camera that introduces you to the technology and culture of the hexarchate. There is no info dump that grounds your feet in this wildly unfamiliar setting. All you have is context, like learning a foreign language by being stranded without a translator. Ninefox Gambit opens at a sprint, and you have to keep up. And that’s apparent from the opening paragraph:

At Kel Academy, an instructor had explained to Cheris’s class that the threshold winnower was a weapon of last resort, and not just for its notorious connotations. Said instructor had once witnessed a winnower in use. The detail that stuck in Cheris’s head wasn’t the part where every door in the besieged city exhaled radiation that baked the inhabitants dead. It wasn’t the weapon’s governing equations, or even the instructor’s left eye, damaged during the attack, from which ghostlight glimmered.

Right out of the gate, Lee makes it clear that the world you’ve stepped into is a fully formed place that only he — through his characters — knows how to navigate, and it’s up to you to decide if you trust him to take you through it.

Take my advice — trust him.

If you do, you’ll find yourself swept up in a narrative that feels wholly alien while still resonating on a fundamentally human level. Cheris, a Kel Captain and brilliant mathematician, is a deeply nuanced character who is remarkably easy to identify with despite our unfamiliarity with the society she lives in — a hexarchate whose customs and technology are ruled by a complex tapestry of high numbers, deviation from which is catastrophic and heretical (and yes, if you were intrigued by my earlier Warhammer 40,000 comment, there is definitely a FOR THE EMPEROR feel to this novel).

When sent on a mission to stop “calendrical rot” from taking root in the Fortress of Scattered Needles and threatening the existence of the hexarchate, Cheris is forcibly teamed with Shuos Jedao, a ruthlessly efficient military tactician whose insanity made him too dangerous to let live and too valuable to kill. Through Cheris and Jedao, we the reader find ourselves simultaneously navigating a battlefield that we know nothing about while seeking to peel back the layers that separate these two delightfully complex characters. It is in fact the connections forged between the Captain who has been imprinted with formation training and the untrustworthy General who mass murdered his own men that gives us the most solid narrative ground to stand on. Tempering tactical plans to take down a shield powered by technology we have no context for with moments of repose in which Cheris and Jedao watch this universe’s equivalent of a soap opera creates a fascinating symmetry that lets us find balance between the familiar and the not.

But that balance isn’t limited to the starring cast — in fact, that’s part of the beauty of this novel. Lee consistently succeeds in reminding us that despite the wild differences in our worlds, technologies and beliefs, the people of the hexarchate are very, very human. He does this by infusing that humanity in everyone we meet, be they the starring cast or the minor faces that come and go in the space of a paragraph. The result is a story full of brutal but gorgeous moments like this one:   

Major Ula’s company wavered for a moment. Then they got themselves sorted out and the pivots started moving into place. A great fierce light sprang up around her company. No, it wasn’t light. You couldn’t read by it or warm your hands by it, but whatever it was, it drew the eye and made it flinch at the same time. It intimated banners and swords held high and six-gun salutes.

[…]

He couldn’t have justified this conviction, but he would have said that the numbers were numbers that mattered. Birthdays and festival days. A child’s shoe size. The number of times a soldier visited a crippled comrade. The specific gravity of a favorite wine. The number of bullets left in a pistol. The distance from this siege to a childhood home, remembered but never visited.

The number of soldiers a Kel general was willing to sacrifice to achieve her objective.

Naraucher wasn’t crying when his company reached the gate’s shriveled remnants, passing through the smoke-memory of people reduced to phantasms of number. But his eyes hurt. Ula’s company had burned up evaporating the gate. He could only do his part: fight through the breach they had won for those who followed. (Location 4619, Kindle Edition)

Do we really understand what just happened to these soldiers? If you do, you’re one up on me. But this soldiers’ genuine, real response to a tragedy on the battlefield gives us all the context we need to feel the full impact of the moment (and damn, how about that imagery?).

This kind of science fiction can make for a tricky line to walk — finding that sweet spot where the reader is content to tread water in the deep end without getting frustrated that they aren’t closer to shore isn’t easy, and if you miss, you lose them. But Lee writes with such confidence, such authority, that it’s easy to believe that Cheris’ world, while utterly strange to you, is utterly familiar to her. And in the end, your faith in Cheris is enough to get you through.

The book is not without flaws; the servitors, sentient robots that go about their work in the swarm, never really amount to anything, which is unfortunate considering the careful attention doled out to them periodically over the course of the narrative. Similarly, the only real “face” we have for the heretical uprising on the Fortress of Scattered Needles feels like wasted potential. After reading pages of her communications — all presented in a fascinating tone that make her rather intriguing — she’s ultimately far less interesting when we actually meet her, and is dealt with far too easily. But compared to what the book does so well, these are more minor quibbles than fundamental problems.

In Conclusion: This book isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you like bold, imaginative stories tethered to rich, nuanced characters and you’re willing to take a deep breath and plunge into alien waters, you’re in for a hell of a reward.  

3 Comments

  • Shara White September 28, 2016 at 7:10 am

    One thing I thought of, over and over, while reading this book: it’s definitely not gateway science fiction. At least, if someone had given this to me as my first real science fiction book after a steady diet of nothing but Star Wars movies and Expanded Universe books, I really don’t think I would’ve made it through.

    That said, it’s quite the compelling read. I look forward to book two!

    Have you read Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem? You should! I think it might thrill your gamer heart, just a little. 🙂

    Reply
  • Bonnie McDaniel October 2, 2016 at 11:28 pm

    I loved this book. It’s one of my favorite books of the year. I think half the fun of it is figuring out your own explanations for what’s happening as you’re going along. (My current theory is that the “calendar” influences the fabric of space and reality itself, and that’s why the hexarchate is so fanatical about maintaining it.)

    Reply
    • Shara White October 2, 2016 at 11:36 pm

      I had a very, very brief moment where I thought all of this was taking place inside a computer, maybe even a virtual reality, but definitely inside a computer.

      Reply

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