Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

ninefox gambit

I feel like I’ve failed.

Every single review I’ve seen for this book, every article about it written by people whose tastes I share or opinions I trust have praised this book to the high heavens, some citing it as good as or even better than Ann Leckie’s debut Ancillary Justice. Sure, they all said the concepts could be fiendishly difficult and that this book definitely required work to read, but that the work would be rewarding and worth it.

I’ve read Ninefox Gambit. I liked the story and the ideas behind the world-building, I loved Cheris and Jedao, and I want to find out what happens next in the sequel.

I have no fucking clue how anything works or how plans got accomplished or foiled, and I’m frustrated and sorry to say this had a significant impact on my ability to love this book alongside everyone else.

Captain Kel Cheris is part of the Kel infantry, the ground-force military branch of the hexarchate, the galaxies-spanning empire of the universe that rules via the power of the high calendar. Cheris, unusual for a Kel, is extraordinarily skilled at mathematics. This skill causes her disgrace when she uses non-standard, heretical battle formations on the field, and it also brings her the opportunity for redemption. The highly important and strategically located Fortress of Scattered Needles has been taken by heretics, and unless the Fortress is recovered, the high calendar and the hexarchate are in danger.

To accomplish her mission, Cheris chooses to access the mind of the renowned general and tactician Shuos Jedeo. In over four hundred years, Jedao has never lost a single battle. He also went mad four hundred years ago and murdered his own army along with the that of enemy. Jedao’s mind has been preserved for use as a weapon by Kel command, which Cheris now carries within her own. He sees and perceives what she does, and he can advise her on courses of action as they’re happening. With Cheris’s mathematical prowess and Jedao’s tactical genius and love of games, they make a powerful team.

But how far can Cheris trust Jedao, a genocidal traitor who’s nevertheless supposed to be helping her win her battle? What games might he be playing with her? And what will those games mean for the future of Cheris, Jedao, and the hexarchate?

The prose of Ninefox Gambit is magnificent: elegant, precise, overtly cold with small underlying pockets of warmth and humor. There is snark and a love of individual foibles I haven’t encountered in fiction since Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy. (Cheris, badass military captain and tactician, loves dueling (even though she’s terrible) and lurid soap operas with equally terrible dueling. I will say no more.) Out of his beautiful prose, Yoon Ha Lee spins a world of impossible physics and battle formations and exotic weapons that is as scarily beautiful as it is beautifully scary.

The world-building is the envelope-pushing aspects of the book, and it is also responsible for my irreconcilable frustration. This is not hand-hold-y world—all pieces of tech, social rules, and cultural details are are introduced as components of everyday life with no additional explanation. The hexarchate retains and reaffirms its control through the high calendar. All other calendars are heretical, and anyone who diverges from the high calendar are is a heretic. Heretical calendars cause disruption to hexarchate technology and weapons and battle formation, all of which are derive from the mathematics of the high calendar, and cause something called “calendrical rot,” which puts the control of the hexarchate and their high calendar into even further danger.

These are really cool ideas, and it’s fascinating world-building, and I have nothing but respect for the vision and imagination that went into the world of Ninefox Gambit. I barely understood it. I couldn’t go more than five pages without having to flip back and re-read a passage to remind myself what was going on, how the tech worked, what the cause and effect of a certain action was and how it was playing out. This meant I wasn’t able to immerse myself the way I like to when reading a book, and I was constantly jolted out of the story by not understanding what I was reading and having to move on anyway if I was going to get anywhere. It’s not how I prefer to read, and it affected my ability to build positive feelings for the book beyond intellectual appreciation and respect for the craft that went into its writing.

A central component to the story of Ninefox Gambit is game theory—the epic space battles, exotic technology, and galaxy-spanning conspiracies all boil down to a gigantic game board wherein Shuos Jedao, master of games that he is, treats every moving component as a piece to be manipulated.

“According to the Shuos,” Jedao said, “games are about behavior modification. The rules constrain some behaviors and reward others. Of course, people cheat, and there are consequences around that, too, so implicit rules and social context are just as important. Meaningless cards, tokens, and symbols become invested with value and significance in the world of the game. In a sense, all calendrical warfare is a game between competing sets of rules, fueled by the coherence of our beliefs. To win a calendrical war, you have to understand how game systems work.”

The above passage is the most unambiguous in the book regarding the nature of calendrical warfare. On an intellectual level, I can grasp the idea of the high calendars and heretical calendars as fueled by and operating on consistency of shared, stated rules and beliefs. I still don’t understand (and I suspect I’m not meant to) how that translates into the efficacy of certain weapons and not others, how individuals breaking away from a calendar can cause “calendrical rot,” and how the importance of mathematics ties into all this. I’m not a math-y person, and I’m even less of a games person, and all of the above world-building I had to accept as true without having any understanding of how these components led to various outcomes in the story.

Still, it’s a testament to just how excellently Ninefox Gambit is written that I was able to enjoy myself nevertheless and be impressed by Yoon Ha Lee’s writing. Cheris and Jedao are, for me, what make the book readable. Cheris is an excellent protagonist. She’s committed to the Kel, both her superiors and her soldiers, and loyal to the hexarchate, but flexible enough that she’s not above considering multiple options in order to get a job done, and she’s enough of an unknown quantity that she’s not entirely predictable, even to the higher-ups pulling the strings. Cheris is a military woman through and through, trained to view through the world around her, particularly the battlefield, through the lens of numbers. But numbers aren’t the whole story, and Cheris still remembers that behind those numbers are the individuals that make up those figures, even as they remain indistinguishable.

Another important thread of Ninefox Gambit is that of obedience and conformity. As a Kel, Cheris has been programmed with formation instinct, the mind-space to obey all orders given by Kel superiors and to give orders that will be obeyed by Kel inferiors. Formation instinct can take multiple forms, and in its most pure, the soldier can do nothing but unthinkingly obey. Formation instinct allows for greater expendability of its soldiers, greater uniformity and success on the battlefield, and it serves as a powerful signifier of the hexarchate’s brutal clamp against any and all forms of heresies that would cause people to break formation, in both military and social and cultural spheres. The hexarchate’s demand for obedience and conformity begs comparison to colonial forms of government and expectations of assimilation among its new populace and intolerance of deviations that, by virtue of being deviations, represent disloyalty and heresy against those in charge.

Jedao is the clever silver-tongued, fox-minded strategist you’d expect. He’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma, the hexarchate’s greatest general and their most dangerous weapon, to others and to themselves. Because Cheris cannot get Jedao out of her head, literally, she walks a knife-edge path navigating her own decisions alongside Jedao’s suggestions and battle plans that only reveal themselves fully to Cheris once he implements them. Just as calendrical warfare and Cheris’s and Jedao’s siege of the Fortress of Scattered Needles is waged via numbers and odds and games, so too is Cheris and Jedao’s tenterhooks-of-a-relationship. What do the numbers represent? People? Game pieces? Infantries? Empires?

But over the course of Ninefox Gambit, Jedao’s story is the real pull that dragged me through the book as I kept asking what kind of person truly was he, what his motives were, and what was the exact nature of his relationship with Cheris he intended to cultivate. Interchangeably pleasant, genial, commanding, degrading, sympathetic, hard-hearted, and merciless, Jedao is the consummate manipulator, and the most empathetic character in the book.

My favorite characters though? The servitors. These mechanical, animal-shaped creatures provided hawk and snake-eyed views of the ships Cheris serves on and the action going on around her, and they are as dedicated to serving humanity as they are eye-rolly at human idiosyncrasies. I loved them.

Ninefox Gambit is undoubtedly a stunningly crafted piece that deserves all the attention and respect for its writing, world-building, underlying themes, and characters. The actual meat-and-bread of the intersection between the world-building and the plot left me out at sea, and I’m left wishing I had been more emotionally invested in the entire package. Still I was racing through the last couple chapters and I sincerely want to read the sequel to see what happens next in the world of the hexarchate. Ninefox Gambit is smart science fiction and it is science fiction that, like the Imperial Radch trilogy before it, makes as its bedrock the importance of the small but no less meaningful things that make people people and make them worth fighting for and saving and mourning.

All my friends who like math and game systems—read Ninefox Gambit. Everyone else—give it a try, and I’ll understand if you bounce off it. But please do try.

2 thoughts on “Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

  1. Pingback: My Favorite Reads of 2016 | Alive and Narrating

  2. Pingback: My Favorite Reads of 2017 | Alive and Narrating

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