Ninefox Gambit

by Yoon Ha Lee

Cover image

Series: The Machineries of Empire #1
Publisher: Solaris
Copyright: 2016
ISBN: 1-84997-992-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 384

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Charis is a Kel, which means that she's a soldier of the Hexarchate. A captain, to be precise: Captain Kel Charis of Heron Company, commanding infantry forces to stamp out heresy. The heresy she's stamping out at the start of the book are the Eels, or the Society of the Flourish as they call themselves, and they're strong enough that they can also command heretical technology.

Charis manages to win through, but only because she has enough flexibility and quick thinking to adjust to the presence of a heresy and reach beyond the Lexicon Primary, improvising formations on the spot to adjust for the affects of the rebel calendar. Military victory is prized among the Kel, but stepping outside the bounds of Doctrine to achieve it is not. Charis is not particularly surprised when her company is disbanded for re-education after the battle. She is very surprised when she personally is tapped to offer a solution to a far greater attack on the Hexarchate.

I first encountered Yoon Ha Lee's fiction in the short story "The Unstrung Zither", was blown away by the creativity and delightfully weird twist on science fiction war, and have been following his writing ever since. Most of it is short fiction, though, and I'm not much of a short fiction reader, so there haven't been many reviews. Ninefox Gambit is his first, and much-anticipated, full-length novel.

It's probably not too surprising for someone from the generation that grew up with Star Wars, but I have a soft spot in my heart for magitech. Hard science fiction has its merits, as does the softer sort that takes standard, if impossible, genre tropes for granted. But something about a far-future, space-faring society based on magic that straddles the rules of technology, physics, affinities, and beliefs calls to that part of me that spent hours thinking about the nature of the Force. It has to be good magitech, though: something odd and different but well-thought-out, full of implications and twisty consequences that reshape society and that inspire a whole new type of engineering and science. Magic that's not physics as we know it, but that's knowable, researchable, and something that a society can reshape itself around.

This is the good magitech.

In the world of the Hexarchate, calendrical systems are more than just a mutual agreement for conveying time. They order and structure the laws of the universe as much as they structure society. What technological devices, and what weapons, are possible is influenced by the calendar in observance, which in turn is based on what calendar people believe in and follow. Close adherence to a calendrical regime enables exotics: weapons with incredibly powerful and often horrific effects, such as the threshold winnower that plays a repeated, nightmarish role in this story. Invariant weapons, ones that will work in any calendar system, are much weaker.

The Hexarchate is called that because it is a society formed by six factions, who divide the work of ruling its scattered planets according to the expertise and tendencies of each faction. Together, they impose the high calendar, and maintain it against heresies with an iron fist lest their power be undermined or transformed and their exotics fail to function. The Kel is their military faction, a key component of that fist, and their specialty is formations: specific arrangements of humans or ships that channel the power of the calendar to defend against or attack with exotics. Formations have to be held exactly to hold their power and yet have to be flexible enough to change based on fast-changing battlefield conditions. To assist in this, Kel are programmed with formation instinct: psychological conditioning that helps them obediently take and hold formations. And, not coincidentally, offer nearly absolute obedience to their chain of command.

I just finished reading another book that attempted to use math as a key component of its world-building. I think Lee was far more successful. The math here is realistic for its purpose, obviously necessary given the formation structures built into the world's physics, and a lovely nod to the importance of calendars. A single calendar might involve only simple arithmetic, but the formation and technological implications of a calendar, let alone the fuzzy boundaries between two calendars each partially in force, would naturally require tricky advanced mathematics to work out. For someone in Charis's position, mathematical training is a rare but vitally important tactical advantage.

As you might have guessed from the amount that I'm talking about combat, Ninefox Gambit is military SF. Charis is a military officer, and a comfortable majority of this book is combat of one kind or another. That's not normally my thing, and I did wish there was a bit more non-military social development. But my normal problem with military SF is that I lack the interest in battlefield tactics and strategy to stay fully engaged by description of battle after battle. Ninefox Gambit is the story of Charis attempting to retake a stronghold of the Hexarchate that's fallen to heretical forces, but Lee adds an important twist that does keep me engaged: Jedao.

General Shuos Jedao was the greatest general the Hexarchate had ever seen. He never lost a battle. The only catch is that, in the middle of a highly successful campaign against heretics, he went mad, slaughtering both the heretics and his own troops with a horrific weapon while simultaneously murdering all of his command staff. He's much too dangerous and insane to leave alive, but he was also much too valuable and skillful to lose as a weapon, so for the subsequent centuries he's been kept in a threshold state, an undead ghost. A ghost that the Hexarchate can put into Charis's head, a constant advisor as she's placed in charge of the swarm sent to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles. A brilliant tactician, sociopath, and mass murderer whose advice can never be trusted.

The heart of Ninefox Gambit isn't the combat. It's the interplay of power, analysis, and guesswork under the combat, as Charis attempts to use Jedao's brilliance while not losing her own sense of identity or letting him mess too badly with her head. At the start, she's way out of her depth. But she's thoughtful, careful, has a strong internal sense of identity, and learns fast. And the story of Jedao's past is accurate, but incomplete.

For those who are familiar with the often-ornate language and prose style of Yoon Ha Lee's short fiction and who are worried it wouldn't hold up at longer length, note that his style here is much different. There are a few touches of ornate description, but most of the book is written in a straightforward and easily-understandable narrative style. Thankfully, because the layers of tactical thrust and counter-thrust are complicated enough that I would have lost them entirely beneath too-complex prose.

There's a lot of brutal death in this book. I got a bit tired of both that and the tactical maneuvering, although that's less the fault of the book and more my own mild antipathy towards military SF. But the unique universe background held my interest long enough to become intrigued by Charis's slow but determined probing at Jedao's secrets and the politics of the Hexarchate. I still would have preferred the story to have a somewhat lower body count, but as long as one can read past some gore, there's plenty here to appeal to someone who normally gives military SF a pass. I think its biggest drawback is that, although it has a narrative arc that comes to a clear conclusion, Ninefox Gambit raises a lot of important questions about its world and mostly doesn't answer them. There are more books coming, and I hope they contain more definitive answers.

Followed by Raven Stratagem.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-05-01

Last modified and spun 2017-05-13