I’m not going to lie here: Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit is not a book for everyone. It very nearly wasn’t a book for me–the first few chapters are incredibly hard going, as Lee drops the reader into a completely alien world with little context. But once I basically decided to stop trying to figure everything out and just focus on the characters, it became a heck of a lot easier to read. It still took me quite a long time, as I was reading it in bits and pieces at lunch–except for the last few chapters which were so riveting that I couldn’t put the book down.
This is a book set in a universe whose technology is so different from our own that it may as well be magic (it helped me to think about it that way, because then I didn’t have to make it make sense). There are six different factions, each of which has a different focus. Kel Cheris, is a Kel–a soldier. More specifically, she’s a captain and the book opens during a battle during which she uses some unconventional math, which gets her noticed and pulled into a special mission: the Fortress of Shattered Needles has been captures by heretics using a different calendar–the calendar is the means by which consensus reality operates in this universe, and deviation from it is considered to be heresy and is punished as such.
Cheris suggests that the undead general, Shuos Jedao, be revived and Kel Command agrees. What Cheris didn’t know, but soon finds out, is that she has also volunteered to be his anchor and she’s also the only one who can hear or speak directly to him. And Jedao’s soul has been kept in a kind of suspended animation for hundreds of years. He is one of the most brilliant tacticians that the hexarchate has ever known and he’s also a mass murderer, having killed millions in his final battle, including his own soldiers.
Cheris’s challenge, then, is to use Jedao’s tactical skills without becoming corrupted by him.
And all this barely touches on everything else going on in the book. The writing is precise and spare in the best sort of way, there are flashes of humor that serve to humanize both Cheris and Jedao (there’s a MacGyver reference!), and then there are the servitors. Sentient robots who act as servants and who know everything that’s going on and I loved them. I would read an entire book about nothing but the servitors. Most people ignore them, but Cheris treats them with respect and kindness, and that becomes important late in the book, as things reach a crescendo.
But it’s the aftermath of the battle that I found most interesting–it reminded me very much of the end of Ancillary Justice, where the immediate story ends and then the curtain is pulled back to reveal a much larger stage and one which will hopefully be explored in more detail in the second book, Raven Stratagem, out in a few weeks.
I rather suspect that Shuos Jedao and Breq would have some very interesting conversations and if that fic doesn’t exist, well it should.
Note: I’m hoping to have reviews of most of the Hugo fiction finalists this year; I’m not making any promises, but that’s what I’m aiming for.