Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Published: Solaris, 2016
Series: Book 1 of the Machineries of Empire
Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke, Hugo and Nebula Awards
Awards Won: Locus First Novel Award

The Book:

To win an impossible war, Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general. Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris's career isn't the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.

Cheris's best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress. The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao--because she might be his next victim.”

This is Yoon Ha Lee’s first novel, so it is naturally the first novel of his that I have read.  The second book in the series, The Raven Strategem, is already out, and I expect I’ll try to get around to it sometime before next year’s award season.

My Thoughts:

Ninefox Gambit is a space opera that tosses you right away into a deeply weird universe, and the novelty kept me interested until I was able to get a sense of how things worked.  If I have understood correctly, their physics is basically determined by conviction, through adherence to a strict calendrical system.  Soldiers can also generate offensive or defensive effects by holding certain formations within areas supported by the appropriate calendar.  If you think that sounds confusing, I should point out that it is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the detailed universe Lee introduces.  It is really a completely different reality than ours, and I don’t doubt that it goes beyond the weirdness limit of some readers.  I spent a lot of time trying to work out how and why the technology worked, and it distracted a little from what exactly was happening in the story.

One really does have to puzzle out this universe, because it is not just a backdrop.  To understand what’s going on, one needs to at least grasp the basis of the hexarchate, the purpose of at least a few of its six branches, and its history with heretics. The tendencies of the members of different branches of the hexarchate are used as shorthand for characterization, and it made the minor characters seem fairly one-dimensional so far. A fair amount of the story also involves military strategy within the calendrical systems, so some attention is needed from the reader for this as well. It’s a lot of information to get through in a first novel, and I hope that having it already introduced will make the second novel, Raven Strategem, run more smoothly.

It is clear by the end that this is part of a larger story, though Ninefox Gambit does come to a satisfying stopping point.  This is clearly the origin story for the protagonist, who I assume will be having more dangerous adventures in the next novels. There was a strong focus on the development of Cheris and her mind-sharing with the insane general Shuos Jedao, but to be honest the world was so alien that it made it difficult to get a sense of who she was and what was important to her.  Knowing very little about Jedao’s past made him seem dangerous and enigmatic, but also difficult to understand. The story also shifts occasionally to single scenes from the perspective of minor characters, which helps showcase the world but does not help in building investment in the major characters. I am invested enough to want to know what happens next for Cheris and Jedao, but what impressed me most with this novel was definitely the creative world building.

My Rating: 3.5 /5

Ninefox Gambit is an unusual and refreshingly creative military space opera.  As the first book in a series, it has to impart a massive amount of information about its intricate setting, while still telling a compelling story.  I was more engaged by the world building than I was by the siege story, and I felt the main characters were a little difficult to build empathy toward.  All the same, this was a very cool novel, and it introduces a world I am looking forward to revisiting in Raven Stratagem.  

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