By Jacob P. Torres
I’m re-reading Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire novels before I read and review my ARC of his third novel, Revenant Gun. Spoilers abound in this review of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. Ninefox Gambit was nominated for a Hugo and Nebula Award for best novel and won the 2017 Locus Award for best new novel.
Cover Description: “To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general.
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by 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..”
What is the book about?
Math! Kind of. If you turn your head sideways and do a lot of LSD first. Seriously though, this novel is about an Infantry Captain in the oppressive Hexarchate Empire, a collection of systems who must adhere to a specific calendar of events and timekeeping and type of math for all of their technology to work right. We follow the story of Kel Cheris, Cheris is a member of the Kel faction, one of six factions that govern the Hexarchate. Kels are soldiers both on land and in space and are modified after joining the military to be completely obedient through something called formation instinct. Cheris is unique among the Kel in that she is unusually gifted at math, and we’re talking the kind of math that would win you Nobel Prizes like they were party favors here on earth. This ability allows her to be inventive on the battlefield, as organizing ships and infantry into different formations can produce effects that blunt the weather or shield from weapons or intensify the brutality of the weapons they already had. In my head, these formations worked like circuits: put the people in the right circuit and you could create different effects.
After a successful ground campaign that Cheris won by violating the doctrine of the Hexarchate (punishable by death) she is tasked as part of group to devise a strategy to win back a space station called the Fortress of Scattered Needles which had fallen to heretics that used a different calendar than the Hexarchate. Cheris comes up with a novel approach, use the only man that’s conquered one of these stations before. It was only a small detail that he’d been dead for 400 years, his mind and personality kept alive in a device called the black cradle, oh, and was the empire’s most notorious traitor. It turns out that the only way for the traitor General Shuos Jedao to be fielded was for him to share Cheris’ body. Together they spend the rest of the book working with, and occasionally against, each other to take down the fortress.
In the end Cheris and Jedao are successful. They retake the fortress only to be betrayed by the people who fielded them, who had realized that combining someone as brilliant at math as Cheris and as brutal and effective tactically as Jedao and letting them loose in a system that depends on math and calendars for everything from tea kettles to interplanetary star drives to work was probably a bad idea. Jedao perishes but Cheris survives and escapes to book two in Lee’s Machineries of Empire series.
What Did I Like About the Book?
Damn near everything? Lee drops you into this world with absolutely no help guides. You’re left to figure out what Calendrical Warfare and Formation Instinct are. To slowly piece together all the personalities of the disparate factions that make up the empire. And the novel is brilliant for it. I’ve read this book like 4 or 5 times since it came out in 2016 and every time I feel like I’m discovering something new.
The science in this book is so far removed from anything we’d expect to see in a SciFi book that it might as well be magic. But it doesn’t play like force powers or wizardry, it plays like science so bloody advanced that you’ll need a hundred years and a few dozen Ph.Ds. to figure it out. But it’s accessible too and that’s clearest in the “exotic” weaponry that they use. You won’t need three guesses and a decoder ring to figure out what an Amputation Cannon is. Or a Fungal Canister. Or a Revenant Gun.
The constant references to the Calendar, heretics for not following the calendar, and things like communication and sensors getting messed up because the heretics are screwing with the calendar can get a little abrasive. But it makes for a truly fascinating setting. Imagine if your microwave stopped working because you forgot to celebrate the 4th of July. It’s a bizarre extension of reality. Because our government would stop working if we all stopped following the laws. Though our microwaves would be fine. This just takes that reality and draws it to a horrible and wondrous conclusion. Characters in the book have to follow remembrances and celebrations or their starships stop working. They have to observe ritual torture of heretics. They have to dress and eat and behave in set ways or their entire system falls down. In a way, every character in the book is held hostage by the things that keep them alive and prosperous. In my head I kind of translated the calendar thing in a couple ways, one was like using a different base in math. Like Base 8 instead of Base 10, feed a computer that uses base 8 an equation in base 10 and it wouldn’t work. But I also viewed it as a kind of strength in unity of thought. One person jumping on the floor can’t even damage the floor, a hundred billion people jumping and well, no more floor.
Lee also has a kind of brilliant kind of double foreshadowing. On the one hand he uses extremely blunt foreshadowing. Jim would come to regret that choice soon. And on the other hand, he would litter throughout the book these little set pieces and throwaway technologies and comments that would come to be extremely significant later in the story. Almost as if he was using the blunt foreshadowing to further obscure the subtler bits.
The book is extremely LGBTQ friendly. Even though romance is not a series set piece to any part of this story, often the book would mention past relationships that were LGBTQ. As oppressive as the Hexarchate is in just about everything else it makes little to no distinction between genders, race, or sexual orientation, or gender reassignment. A common trope when writers are trying to write an oppressive regime is to have that regime target a race, gender, or some other identifying feature, though that trope tends to occur more in fantasy writing than SciFi.
Who was my Favorite Character?
Once Captain, now Brevet General Kel Cheris was my runaway favorite. Cheris was an ethnic minority and a math prodigy with a penchant for outside the box thinking in a society that valued conformity more than anything else. She felt like such an outsider from an early age that she elected to go into the army, where they have compliance to authority inserted into you like a governor for your free will so that she could feel a sense of belonging, of being part of the community rather than outside of it. She was tactically brilliant in her own right, bold and daring, and having Jedao in her head complimented that rather than subsumed it. She made odd friendships with the sentient A.I. robots on the ship called servitors. They would watch their society’s equivalent of cheesy Kung Fu films together. Her relationship with Jedao was something that felt like it uplifted them both, even as his presence in her head made her more of an outsider than she ever had been and painted a bright target on her back to friends and allies alike. Cheris embodied a kind of strength and compassion that we don’t normally see in military characters. She was willing to make absolutely brutal calls if she had to but was conflicted and wracked by guilt for doing so. In the end of the book, after she survives two assignation attempts that cost her her crew, her fleet and Jedao, she risks her sanity to get answers as to why.
Jedao for his part was a charismatic madman. He was a portrait of military force taken to extremes and a teacher and a mentor. You never got the sense that he was completely on Cheris’ side but you also never thought he was out to get her. In books that focused on two characters they’ll be terrible if you don’t care about the two main characters. And you care about Cheris and Jedao.
What Did I Not Like?
The inaccessibility that is one of the novel’s great strengths can be a weakness too. In my first read through of this and the second book I had moments where I had to go back and reread a scene to make certain I hadn’t missed something. This wasn’t something that really bothered me, to me the book was like solving a mystery, but I can see how it would be annoying or off-putting to others.
As much as I loved the two main characters, and I did, Lee painted snapshots of other interesting characters who I felt like we didn’t get to see enough of. We might get a chapter or a few paragraphs of another character before we move on. Pacing wise I think this was the right decision for the book, but I’d still liked to have seen more of the other characters.
Our window into the heretics of the Fortress of Scattered Needles comes from e-mails that they’re sending back and forth to each other. They can be amusing but with as little of the book that’s spent on them I didn’t thin they really did a great job of paining the other side of the conflict. Ultimately this story is more about Cheris’ journey which is as much about stopping the heretics as it is about solving the riddle of Shuos Jedao, so it doesn’t really distract from the book.
At the end of the book Cheris gets memories of Jedao’s that really explains his motivations. But it’s like six flashbacks in a row and that felt a little overwhelming, which fit the scene. I was left wondering if the memories been parsed out as dreams rather than the mechanism used if Cheris and
If you’re willing to put a bit more thought into what you’re reading you’ll really enjoy this book. The inaccessibility can be a challenge, but with some imagination and desire to solve some mysteries you’ll get a lot out of the book and the setting. The alienness of the culture and technology paints a brilliant picture of a society significantly more advanced but at the same time incredibly broken. It’s full of fun characters that you’ll come to care about and root for throughout the story. The few minor, minor gripes I had with the book feel like first novel mistakes more than fundamental problems and surprise it was Lee’s first novel. I think most people who like Hard SciFi will love this book, but it might take a couple read throughs for some people to really feel like they’re getting it.
P.S. Bree agrees with literally everything Jacob just said.
|Final Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 cups of tea. If you’re willing to put a bit more thought into what you’re reading you’ll really enjoy this book.|
|+ Inaccessible setting lets you solve the mystery of the world as well as enjoy the plot.||– inaccessible setting could be off-putting to some readers.|
|+ Characters are a triumph, you’ll love Cheris and you’ll be wary of Jedao.||– Some missed opportunities with background characters not having enough page time.|
|+ Despite a setting of 1000 wonders, the story really shines through, and it’s a good story.||– The secondary antagonist of the book, the heretics that took the fortress seem thin.|