A review by Sam Sheikh
by Yoon Ha Lee
If Romantic poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge were alive today, I suspect he would applaud Yoon Ha Lee for challenging his readers with prose that encourages a willing suspension of disbelief.
Consider this Kubla Khan-esque passage from Lee’s Ninefox Gambit:
“Although Cheris knew better, she kept expecting the world to change around her in response to the calendrical rot: for the walls to run like water, the light to shiver into turbulent colors, the sounds of human voices to shred into the cries of migrating birds. But that was the trouble: you had to use exotic effects to analyze the rot. If quotidian human physiology had much sensitivity to calendrical effects, the hexarchate would have destroyed itself with its own technology base.”
Filled with such kaleidoscopic writing and arcane mathematical concepts, Ninefox Gambit is an ambitious, relentlessly driving novel. It covers vast intergalactic space, empires, and battles, yet focuses on two individuals who are conjoined by fate to extract the first block that threatens to topple the oligarchic regime they serve—the hexarchate.
Cheris, the co-protagonist, has the aptitude and mathematical genius to join the Nirai faction. Instead, she chose the militaristic Kel faction as her career path. Asked to propose a solution to quell a serious rebellion in the strategically important Fortress of Scattered Needles, she recommends that a traitorous general, Jedao, be brought back online and used as a weapon against the rebels.
Like Cheris, Jedao had switched factions, from the intensely cerebral Shuos to the Kel. Hundreds of years ago, the brilliant and undefeated General Jedao had gone mad. In the midst of battle, he committed mass murder of both the enemy as well as his own forces. Too valuable to dispose of, yet too dangerous to be allowed corporeal form, his body was destroyed but his consciousness kept in stasis. Thus, he lives on in a sleepless, undead, safe-to-handle state—like Hannibal Lecter strapped to a gurney. When required, his consciousness is brought back online but anchored within a human body. Her proposal approved, Cheris becomes the anchor to Jedao.
Given command of a powerful punitive force and advised by Jedao, she is charged with suppressing the rebellion. However, she is warned that Jedao, a double-edged weapon if there ever was one, must be controlled. Any hint of his madness and she is to use a special chrysalis gun on herself to kill him.
In the battle to reduce the rebellious fortress, Jedao’s advice seems to achieve small successes at great cost. He argues short-term costs ensure long-term gains, yet is he really just bleeding both sides? Is Cheris the unwitting butcher and traitor? And then there’s the ruthless oligarchy, which appears to have other plans. Are Cheris and Jedao both unwitting pawns in the battle between the oligarchs?
It brings to mind the “wheels within wheels within wheels” plots of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune. Ninefox Gambit’s vaguely East Asian culture, factional infighting, and militaristic regime also brings to mind Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series. And surely Lee, a mathematician, was inspired by fellow mathematician and sci-fi author Vernor Vinge and his A Deepness in the Sky, which chronicles a centuries long fight for freedom with one Pham Nuwen playing a leading role from the back row.
Ninefox Gambit delivers a satisfying story centered around human drama in a sweeping space opera, but readers must work to get to the best parts. They are not so much immersed as plunged into a world of Lee’s imagination. Like the Kel soldiers in the novel, Lee sometimes ruthlessly leaves everyone behind while propelling his story. Cindermoths, calendrical heresy, carrion bomb, genial gun—at times, it’s all a confusing array of familiar terms married uncomfortably to each other. Due to familiarity with real-world objects, readers can surmise that a scorch pistol is less powerful than a scorch rifle. But it is difficult to imagine how effective fury bombs might be against shields generated by invariant ice. Like the Vorpal blade against the Jabberwock perhaps?
To enjoy Lee’s novel, one must surrender the need to understand everything—to willingly suspend disbelief and not lose sight of the forest for the trees. When that occurs, the reader is amply rewarded by this smart, highly impressionistic sci-fi novel.