A review of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris, 2016)
I’m not really a fan of military science fiction, but the blurb for this novel caught my fancy and I was vaguely aware of the author’s reputation as a short story writer, so I decided to give his first novel a try.
The first thing to be said is that it is not an easy read. Lee begins in media res with his main character, Captain Kel Cheris, fighting for her life on an alien battlefield with no explanation of what is going on. But the very alienness of the situation makes for a gripping tale and the reader is swept along as Cheris is pulled out of that conflict and promoted: she has been selected to lead the response to a calendrical heresy that is threatening the Hexarchate. The full resources of the Hexarchate are put her disposal and she opts for the help of a long-dead Shuos general, Jedao, who was condemned as a mass murderer. With Jedao and a powerful task force, Cheris tackles the heresy head-on at what appears to be the focal point of the problem.
As you might expect, they succeed in defeating the heretics. But what is really interesting is the larger story that Lee has constructed around this straightforward narrative. We learn that the Hexarchate is not the benign institution Cheris believed it to be. We discover something of Jedao’s history and begin to get an idea of what might have driven him to mass murder. And by the end of the story, we discover that we are really only at the end of the first act of a much larger story.
Little details distinguish and bring to life the various cultures and castes under the power of the Hexarchate. For example, for some unexplained reason the Kel, the military caste of the Hexarchate, have a particular fondness for cabbage. But what I enjoyed most about Lee’s world building was his creation of an esoteric calendrical mathematics that underpins the technology and culture of the Hexarchate. This mathematics is never explained but somehow pervades the whole to create the impression that one is indeed eavesdropping on an alien culture. I have rarely come across such a successful depiction of the alien. (Too often SFF authors think that they can lift elements from Chinese or Japanese culture and that counts as alien!)
Lee’s characterization is as gripping as his world building. It is not often that readers will find themselves sympathizing with a character who freely admits to being a mass murderer!
This is easily the best work of science fiction I have read in 2016. My one frustration with it is that the next volume of the trilogy isn’t yet available!