LitStack Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

by Sharon Browning

Ninefox Gambit
Yoon Ha Lee
Release Date:  June 14, 2016
ISBN 978-1-78108-449-6

This is what you get when you let a mathematician write science fiction.

Ninefox Gambit is military science fiction unlike anything else I’ve ever read. This is a good thing. Most of the military science fiction I’ve read seems a heckuva lot like today’s warfare only with bigger guns and spaceships.

I’m not talking near future military sci-fi, the stuff that authors such as Linda Nagata and Myke Cole produce – their stuff is amazing. I’m talking about works taking place so far into the future that our current society is unrecognizable. If society is unrecognizable, shouldn’t the way war is waged have a completely different strategic mindset?

Ann Leckie did this brilliantly in her Imperial Radch books (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy). Ninefox Gambit is much along those same lines, with a tighter focus on a military campaign but reflecting tantalizing glimpses of the overall direction of futuristic life.

In Ninefox Gambit, mathematics are a vital part of military strategy; in the formations the battalions enact (which, for the Kel, are part of their military conditioning) to how they deploy ships and weaponry to how they gather intelligence. The aim is to keep calendrical integrity intact in the face of threats from heretics bent on overthrowing the hexarchate’s hierology.  (For all intents and purposes, merely trying to function outside of the normal calendar is heresy.)

When Captain Cheris Kel of Heron Company employs unconventional (re: heretical) tactics to claim victory over the Eels heretics on Dredge, she is disgraced. But her quick thinking and mathematical acumen bring her to the attention of Hexarch Shuos Mikodez, who advances her as a candidate to lead forces in response to trouble in the calendrical currents at the Fortress of Scattered Needles, which is uncomfortably near the hexarchate itself. Charis is given the assignment based on her proposed solution, and is paired with the dreaded undead tactician Jedao Shuos, who is a genius but also quite mad, having massacred his entire army at Hellspin Fortress hundreds of years earlier.

Through Charis’ mathematical prowess and Jedao’s experience as a strategist, the Kel fighting force assigned to them moves against the heretics at the Fortress of Scattered Needles, attempting to reverse the effects of the dreaded calendar rot initiated by calendrical heresies. But eventually Charis realizes there’s another game in play, one where she doesn’t know the rules or even what the endgame might be.

Confused? I sure was.

But there’s confused, and then there’s confused. I found Ninefox Gambit confusing if I tried to make sense of every bit of it (especially since I’ve always sucked at math), but not when I just sat back and let it unfold. When I relaxed, it was glorious.

For me, it was like watching a rugby match. I know very little of rugby’s rules or strategies, but I still enjoy watching the sheer physicality of it. Or think of it this way – if you are going to attend performances of Der Ring des Nibelungen offered by an amazing opera company, even if you don’t speak German or have a clue about Norse mythology, you’re still going to be transfixed. You may not know exactly what a valkyrie is, but the music alone is going to make it clear that they are some pretty bad ass bitches.

That’s what Ninefox Gambit was for me. I understood enough to allow the story to build around me. The amazing cohesion of the environment that author Yoon Ha Lee employs allows for the right tone, the right emotion, the right focus to build along with the action, so ideas such as calendar rot and unquestioning obedience and exotic weaponry fell easily into place. The narrative was both alien and familiar, giving the story an air of excitement that would have felt flat and pedantic were not such unorthodox mentalities and behaviors been put into play.

And it’s not all about warfare. We get glimpses into Cheris’ background, and see how she responds to those around her (human and nonhuman), making her more than merely a Kel captain but an actual thinking, feeling person. There are also passages that follow some of the Kel under her command, which humanizes the military precision of the campaign, giving it a pathos without compromising the Kel’s overriding sense of obedience. There are also ingenious communications on the part of Vahenz afrir dai Noum, a high ranking heretic, to another officer, which are both insightful, and hilarious (in that “Vh.” as she signs herself, is both sardonic and a hedonistic, especially when it comes to pastries). Not to mention the unfolding of Jedao Shuos himself. Simply extraordinary.

Although it wasn’t obvious from my copy of Ninefox Gambit, while doing research for this review it came to light that this is the first of a series of books to be known as the Machineries of Empire series. Discovering this thrilled me, for by the end of Ninefox Gambit, even though I don’t think I’d be able to adequately explain what it was all about to a stranger sitting next to me on the bus, I still feel compelled to continue to be part of this universe.

Mathematics and all.

~ Sharon Browning

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