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Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha LeeThree and a half stars
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Hard science fiction has long been a genre known for speaking its own language, which can often present a barrier to entry that new readers find difficult to overcome. Recent novels like Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief have made it something of a deliberate narrative goal to present their readers with a difficulty curve to master while immersing yourself in their worlds. The degree to which this could be considered not playing fair with the reader, I’d say, ought to be weighed against the need for genre fiction, especially a genre like SF, to shake the tree every once in a while, unless we find ourselves bogged down in cliché and convention. Consider these books the reading equivalent of a game that has no difficulty setting other than Hard and Legendary. They’re going to give you a pounding, but the sense of achievement is just that much greater. Unless you’re just not into that in the first place.

So with the expected caveat that Yoon Ha Lee’s debut military space opera Ninefox Gambit is Not For Every Reader, it’s nice, if admittedly reductionist, to be able to point out that the basic plot is fundamentally no different than that of a hundred fantasy epics. Imagine that the evil wizards have taken over the castle and lain a horrible curse upon all the land. Our heroes must band together to retake the castle, vanquish the wizards and lift the curse. There, I just explained all of Ninefox Gambit to you in perhaps the most unthreatening possible way. It is, at its heart, a most traditional adventure tale.

It’s half past the future somewhere in the very depths of deep space, and a governing body called the Hexarchate is having some trouble. A faction of heretics has taken over one of its central stations, the Fortress of Scattered Needles, and their rebellion is threatening the very fabric of reality.

From the outset, Yoon Ha Lee tosses you into the deep end. The sheer foreignness of the Hexarchate, particularly the rules under which it functions, is something you’re not actually expected to understand to any great detail as the tale begins. From the very opening paragraph, we’re introduced to alien exotic weapons that employ mathematical equations, and which create devastating weather systems that physically rearrange the molecular structure of their targets. Warships with names like voidmoths and cindermoths fly into battle to combat stations shielded by something called invariant ice. Armies are trained in a method called formation instinct, the goal of which is to brainwash them into reflexive, absolute obedience to command. And their goal is to vanquish “calendrical rot,” about which we’re given no direct explanation, as long as we understand it’s a very, very bad thing.

Readers who are willing and able to rise to Yoon Ha Lee’s storytelling challenges — and no disrespect if you decide you aren’t one of them — will quickly find Ninefox Gambit and its array of exotic concepts opening up, slowly at first, and then like the proverbial blooming rose. Lee’s skills as a wordsmith help a great deal here. Too rarely do hard SF writers offer their readers language that feels poetic rather than strictly technical. Readers’ bafflement at what the hell everyone in this book is doing, let alone talking about, is helpfully mitigated by the sheer beauty of the words Lee employs to convey everything. It takes effort to make sense of things, but by golly, it all sounds lovely.

In short order, the book’s ideas do clarify themselves in your mind, and immersion into this future becomes easier. For my part, I even found that a second reading helped. In the past I’ve experienced many other authors whose headspace I couldn’t fully share until I gave them a second try. And in my second reading of Ninefox Gambit, which I dove into immediately upon closing the back cover on the first one, suddenly the book was as easy to fall into as any other. A lot of science fiction novels flatter themselves that they are mind expanding, but it’s rare to encounter one that actually delivers on that boast.

The first thing to know about Hexarchate society is that it doesn’t adhere to principles of science as we understand them, in which the universe is governed by physical laws that are in play whether we’re around to observe them or not. Everything here is ruled by mathematics, which has created a consensus reality. Everything only works because everyone agrees that this is how it should work, and it’s all measured by a system of calendars, under methods that remain to us cloaked in mystery. All that you need to know to get what’s going on is that under consensus reality, dissenting belief systems can threaten the very fabric of reality. And this is the crisis that the heretics who’ve overtaken the Fortress of Scattered Needles have created. Following the rules, in this future, is pretty much everything.

The story centers on two military leaders. Cheris is a captain belonging to the Kel, one of the Hexarchate’s six factions, and the one comprising its military. When she employs some heretical tactics to overtake a group of rebels on a distant world, she is stripped of her command in disgrace. But she’s immediately employed by the Shuos, a faction known for being strategists and schemers, to come up with a bold plan to retake the Fortress. This involves reviving a notorious military genius and tactician, Shuos Jedao, who never lost a single battle he was sent into. Unfortunately, he won one of them by also slaughtering his own army. That sort of thing being frowned upon by Kel Command, they have since kept Jedao stored in a kind of undead state, in the hopes of figuring out what makes him such a military wizard despite the crazy parts. If in fact there are any crazy parts.

Jedao is anchored into Cheris’s mind. She alone can hear him, and talk back to him, and in what must be a deeply creepy change to her routine, she sees his reflection when she looks in a mirror. It’s the working relationship that develops between these two that gives the novel its human center, and makes it easier to adapt to all the indistinguishable-from-magic technology. Cheris is a mathematical genius, and shouldn’t have joined the Kel faction at all, but did so out of a need to be part of something bigger than herself. Her fondness for cheesy melodramas, or the consideration she feels towards the sentient robot servitors that perform menial functions, gives her character a vulnerable side that makes her determination to stay the course more palpable.

Jedao, on the other hand, has always been a master manipulator. And there is a power imbalance between him and Cheris that he often deliberately exploits, if only in the interest of toughening her up for the battle to come. It’s a fraught relationship, but not one with any disrespect, though there’s never much certainty on Cheris’s part that Jedao is altogether to be trusted — there is his history, after all.

There’s so much that’s brilliant here that the book’s shortcomings really stand out. Apart from Cheris and Jedao, the story does little to develop any its supporting characters. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if Lee didn’t insist on cutting away from his two leads, with brief scenes giving us the viewpoint of a character we haven’t seen before and won’t see again, and therefore have little cause to care about. There’s one assassin who puts in what amounts to a glorified walk-on late in the book, whom I really thought ought to have been fully developed. Lee also inserts messages from one of the leaders of the heresy, representing a long-banished faction called the Liozh. This character gives some insight into the heretics’ view of the war, but a character we see only through their correspondence doesn’t really serve as a character in a storytelling sense. And most problematically, these letters don’t really give the explanation I was wanting for the motives of the heretics. What exactly is it about the Hexarchate’s calendrical system they find inferior, and why is it so crucial to them to replace it with their own, even at the cost of open warfare? This is a nontrivial detail, and one, sadly, the book short-changes us on.

But overall, Ninefox Gambit establishes Yoon Ha Lee as a risk taker in the mold of many of science fiction’s most uncompromising maverick talents, like Samuel Delany. Though it doesn’t always execute all of its narrative strategies flawlessly, it’s a novel that offers adventurous readers a little storytelling heresy to shake up some of the stuffy old rules.

Followed by Raven Stratagem.