Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ninefox Gambit - Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit is the first of three novels in The Machineries of Empire series. It is Lee's début in the long form. He  has several dozen short stories in the past fifteen years though, a selection of which can be found in the collection Conservation of Shadows (2013). Lee's work shifts between fantasy and science fiction. There are magical and mythological elements but also a fondness of mathematics and far future narratives present in his stories. I know of one other story set in the same universe as Ninefox Gambit. The Battle of Candle Arc (2012)  is set centuries before the novel but features one of the characters in this book. The story is included in the aforementioned collection. The publication of Ninefox Gambit casts the story notes at the back of Conservation of Shadows in a different light.

In a far future the Hexarchate rules over a vast volume of space. Their powers is based on calendriacal mathematics. It allows them to shape reality but only works in very specific circumstances. The calendar is a religion, one guarded by ritual torture and endless warfare to crush heresy. Captain Kel Cheris is one of the soldiers ensuring the unity of the empire. She has a talent for mathematics that makes her both dangerous and useful to the hexarchate. Cheris is recalled after a mission and asked to file a plan to retake a strategically important fortress fallen into the hands of a new heretical movement. Cheris sees no other option than to request the aid of general Jedao, the empires most brilliant general and its worst traitor. Jedao is a dangerous weapon to use, as Cheris will find out when trying to retake the fortress.

Ninefox Gambit is pure space opera. It is set in a far future, on the largest possible canvas. There are powerful space ships, huge battles and strange technologies made possible by copious amounts of handwavium. It took me a while to figure out the internal logic of the novel but once that falls into place it quickly becomes clear the characters are playing for high stakes. It's a fast, exciting, and action packed plot. A Hollywood CGI company would have a field day recreating some of the battle scenes. There is a bit more to the novel than just big explosions however.

In my review of Conservation of Shadows I said some of the characters reminded me a bit of Frank Herbert's characters. Particularly the ones in the final two Dune novels, where quite a few characters can fall back on the wisdom and experience from generations past. The ancient general Cheris is using for her mission has long since been executed. He is brought back very infrequently. On very few occasions the gain outweighs the risk of letting him loose on the universe. They release him by attaching him to another character. He does not, in other words, have a body of his own. For the moment he is stuck with Cheris, who is the only one who can communicate with him directly.

Lee makes good use of this lopsided relationship in the novel. A brilliant general with centuries of experience and a reputation for being unpredictable and more than a little mad, ought to be in the driving seat when dealing with a captain bumped up to general, used to obeying and very much out of her element. Cheris has one skill Jedao lacks however. It is not very apparent in most of this novel, but I suspect it will be important in future books. There is a good balance in the novel between the immediate demands of present developments and the interplay between these characters and their clashing agendas.

In the background of the novel there is another element that will probably run through the entire trilogy. The state Lee describes is a totalitarian one. The power of the calendrical mathematics is great but also results in a lot of repression. As the title of the series suggests, it is a machine crushing the individual who steps outside the narrow boundaries acceptable to the hexarchate. The machine of the state devours heretics but is not too careful with its Kel, the soldiers of the empire, either. It instils a scary kind of fanaticism in its soldiers. A good Kel soldier will die rather than disrupt the formation. Formations, much like society, need to stay within very narrowly defined boundaries to reap the benefits of the calendrical system. It's gleichschaltung on a frightening scale.

The system is also very inflexible and surprisingly vulnerable. The mathematics behind it, is only fully understood by one of the leaders of the six factions that make up the hexarchate. Heresy rears its head with depressing frequency and the empire seems to have external as well as internal enemies. Cheris, doesn't know half of this at the opening of the novel and completely accepts this situation. Obedience is drilled into her by the Kel after all. Her changing attitude during the novel is a fine bit of character building.

Ninefox Gambit is very much the setup for a series. It ends at a natural point in the story but it also leaves many questions unanswered. It is a book that is very hard to rate until the shape of the overall story becomes known. I enjoyed reading it a lot tough and I think the series has great potential. Lee balances a fast paced story with enough reflections on power and characterization to make it an intriguing read. He does all of this in a fairly concise novel. Where some space opera is bloated to epic fantasy proportions, Lee keeps the page count reasonable. This novel may well be the start of something special. I look forward to reading the second volume.

Book Details
Title: Ninefox Gambit
Author: Yoon Ha Lee
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: 259
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-1-84997-992-4
First published: 2016


  1. Good review. You understood much more of the setting and setup than I did. And I fully agree: it's a very difficult novel to judge without more knowledge of how the story continues in the volumes that will follow.

    1. Yea, it is one of those books where you have to read the sequel. Given Lee's other work I don't doubt he'll make it work though.

  2. I'm intrigued, but I've read the calendar stuff boils down to magic. Does the fact that you mention handwavium confirms this? If so, this might be something I should pass on.

    1. Lee mentions it being grounded in math but how it actually works is not explained. It is not a science fiction in the Arthur C. Clarke sense of the word, striving for full scientific accuracy. You could call it magic I suppose but there are no fellows with long beards and pointy hats in the book.

  3. It turns out I liked it a lot too!