Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee



Yoon Ha Lee has made a name for himself with such short stories as Snakes  and Falcon-And-Sparrows and The Knight of Chains, The Deuce of Swords. Ninefox Gambit is his first novel.

It’s military SF, which (stating my biases upfront) was a bit disappointing, since the genre is inherently conservative one within the infinite possibilities of science fiction.

The Hexarchate (which used to be the Heptarchate before the Liozh were declared heretics and destroyed) is a standard authoritarian interstellar government that keeps its power through the enforcement of calendrical and religious protocols. All conquered peoples are forced to follow the same date and time systems. Control at the level of basic societal assumptions.

The Hex in the Hexarchate refers to the castes in the system: Kel, Shuos, Nihrai, Rahal, Andan, and the last one that starts with a V (Vordai? Sorry, bad note taking while reading). The lead character in the book is Captain Kel Cheris. She’s a genius at math and has been very successful in the ranks of the Kel, the Hexarchate’s military caste. Her success has brought her to the attention of the leaders of the Hexarchate who are dealing with an outbreak of heresy that has taken over the Fortress of Scattered Needles. When asked what weapon she will need to destroy the heretics and take the Fortress, she answers that she needs the insane traitor General Shuos Jedao. Jedao has been on ice for the last 400 years, too traitorous and insane to keep alive, too useful to kill. He never lost a battle, you see. The Hexarchate responds with a long ooooookayyyyy… and gives Cheris what she wants.

Cheris goes into battle with Jedao welded to her shadow, offering her advice and strategy in her mind. Which is a problem for Cheris when she realizes that Jedao is playing a very long game. A game of vengeance. An extremely long gambit.  

Lee uses his imagination best in this novel when it comes to weapon design. Amputation guns. Threshold winnowers. Carrion bombs which leave behind nothing but shards of personality traits and memories that can be ingested. Cannons both erasure and dire. Infantry formations that bring on hive mind states and also act as mathematical armor for the entire formation. Military SF, yes, but not your standard shooty-shooty (yes, Warhammer 40K, I’m looking at you).

There’s a lot of talking in this novel. But Lee is a skilled writer and is able to keep the scenes tension filled and moving along. It’s never a boring novel.

One of the weakness of the book is that there isn’t a great sense of place. A variety of command centers and hallways, it seemed.

Reminded me a lot of Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, down to gloves as civilizational signifier and AIs that are secretly helpful to those who they like.

It’s almost like a fantasy novel (cue: any sufficiently advanced tech = magic). Sword and sorcery overlay of the science fiction elements. This came to mind when I read the place names: Fortress of the Scattered Needles, the Entangled March, the Citadel of Eyes.

I’m not saying Ninefox Gambit is a bad novel. It’s imaginative. Read it if you can get it from a library or torrent. I’m going to read the next one in the series. I was just hoping for the pure quill weirdness that Lee showed in his short stories.
Next Review: Haints Stay by Colin Winnette

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