10 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ambitious. Confusing. Enthralling. Brilliant. These are the words I will use to describe Yoon Ha Lee’s utterly immersive, utterly memorable novel, Ninefox Gambit.

Title: Ninefox Gambit

Author: Yoon Ha Lee

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Solaris Books
Publication Date: June 2016
Hardcover: 384 Pages

Ninefox Gambit

The first installment of the trilogy, Ninefox Gambit, centers on disgraced captain Kel Cheris, who must recapture the formidable Fortress of Scattered Needles in order to redeem herself in front of the Hexarchate.

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.

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Machineries of Empire series

How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher

Format (e- or p-): Hardcover



Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is no ordinary Kel captain. For one, her mathematical modeling and computational skills are extraordinary—so extraordinary, that she was earmarked for the erudite Nirai instead of the Kel infantry. Instead of choosing the Nirai path, however, Cheris chooses the life of a Kel soldier. When Cheris uses unconventional formations and calculations in combat against the heretic threat of calendrical rot, she survives the onslaught but suffers a huge blow to her career (the Kel do not like nonconformity). But Cheris’s unconventional techniques also have the side effect of drawing the attention of two Shuos leaders—leaders who might be able to use Cheris as a very important pawn, in a very long game.

Cheris is offered a chance at redemption: she is assigned to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles from the heretics and is given the ultimate weapon to aid her mission. The “ultimate weapon” is actually the ghostly consciousness of a brilliant tactician named Shuos Jedao—a Shuos commander so brilliant, he has never lost a battle. The problem, however, is that Jedao is quite insane; the reason his consciousness is carefully imprisoned and held by Shuos command is because Jedao’s greatest triumph was followed by his rapid massacre of not only the enemy army, but also the annihilation of all of his own men.

And now, Cheris must tether Jedao’s consciousness to her own, anchor his ethereal presence to her shadow, allowing him into her mind so that only she may hear him and use his advice to win an impossible war. If Cheris is successful, it will mean a future for the hexarchate and all that she and her fellow citizens hold dear—though it may cost Charis her sanity. But as she proceeds with her desperate gambit to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles, Cheris slowly discovers that the hexarchate is not at all what she thought it was, and Jedao’s madness, his secret, isn’t as simple as it has been made out to be.

Ambitious. Confusing. Enthralling. Brilliant. These are the words I will use to describe Yoon Ha Lee’s utterly immersive, utterly memorable novel, Ninefox Gambit. Prior to picking up this novel (my first acquaintance with Yoon Ha Lee), I had heard very high praise for Lee’s short fiction—still, even with those moderate expectations I had no idea what I was in for with Ninefox Gambit.

This novel is incredibly ambitious, and, if I’m being completely honest, confusing as hell. I’ve tried to describe this book a number of times to others, and well, it’s hard. Let me see if I can do this: there is a government—the hexarchate (represented by six different groupings of people, from the suicide hawk Kel to the eponymous nine-tailed fox Shuos), which once was a heptarchate—which controls its people with a sophisticated calendrical system that organizes and in essence defines the reality in which its people reside. On the other side of the war, there are the heretics, who attempt to override and destroy the calendrical system of the hexarchate with “rot”—they are able to change and redefine reality through calendrical rot, and are on a quest to tear away the veil of conditioning and control imposed by the Shuos, defying the hexarchate’s dictates. Or, at least, that’s what I think is happening in this particular war.

Knowing, then, what calendrical rot and calendrical heresy are, the next step is to understand how Cheris and her unpredictability play into this system. An infantry captain on the front lines, Cheris is one of the Kel—a grouping of citizens who are very firmly indoctrinated to follow formation instinct, the chain of command, and are not to question or go against direct orders. (It’s actually painful for Cheris and almost impossible for her to resist a direct order from a superior—a situation that leads to very uncomfortable and painful interactions when she is elevated to far beyond her rank, and implanted with Shuous Jedao.) For a soldier like Cheris to use instinct and unconventional mathematical formations and tactics to survive a heretic attack, this goes agains the very heart of the calendrical system imposed by the hexarchate. Remember, this is a society that defines its own reality through sophisticated equations and mathematics; Cheris’s improvisation is tantamount to, well, heresy. But try as the hexarchate might, even with formation instinct and indoctrination, individuality and differences of character always prevail. And this, dear readers, is where Cheris and Jedao’s banter and bleeding of consciousness comes in.

It’s very tricky to balance character building, page-turning action, and beautiful writing with seriously complex world building, but Lee manages to do just that. And how does he do that? With all of this incredibly high-concept mathematical reality-defining and calendrical warfare going on, Ninefox Gambit is in fact an immensely readable book because of its awesome and very human characterization. Cheris is a woman who has very specifically chosen against what society has predicted for her (to become a Kel instead of a Nirai). She is tactical and adept at higher mathematics, but also young, green, compassionate, and unpredictable. Her foil, Shuos Jedao is an outcast and the great bogeyman of the hexarchate—he is feared by all because of his formidable battle skills, track record for success, and his madness. Together, Cheris and Jedao form an unlikely bond, and then a singular consciousness. Cheris struggles to maintain her privacy and identity when Jedao is pinned to her shadow, and Jedao is respectful as he can be of her space, before preparing Cheris for his true plan. The result is a fascinating take on identity, thought, privacy, and agency. Agency, in particular, is a key thematic point of Ninefox Gambit—not just in the very primary sense of Cheris’s thoughts and actions being bled into by Jedao, but the very nature of the hexarchate itself and its conditioning and compartmentalizing and devouring of any other cultures or thought-patterns.

I haven’t felt this blown away by a novel’s originality since Ancillary Justice. And, since I’m being completely honest, Ninefox Gambit is actually more inventive, boundary-breaking, and ambitious than Ancillary Justice. Allow me to end by putting it this way: if you’ve been craving to fill the void left by Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, if you’re hungry for military SF that teems with brilliant characterization, sharp prose, and unconventional vision, look no further.

Ninefox Gambit, Cheris, and Jedao await.
Yours in calendrical heresy,

Notable Quotes: From Chapter 1:

At Kel Academy, an instructor had explained to Cheris’s class that the threshold winnower was a weapon of last resort, and not just for its notorious connotations. Said instructor had once witnessed a winnower in use. The detail that stuck in Cheris’s head wasn’t the part where every door in the besieged city exhaled radiation that baked the inhabitants dead. It wasn’t the weapon’s governing equations or even the instructor’s left eye, damaged during the attack, from which ghostlight glimmered.

What Cheris remembered most was the instructor’s aside: that returning to corpses that were only corpses, rather than radiation gates contorted against black-blasted walls and glassy rubble, eyes ruptured open, was one of the best moments of her life.

Five years, five months, and sixteen days later, surrounded by smashed tanks and smoking pits on the heretic Eels’ outpost world of Dredge, Captain Kel Cheris of Heron Company, 109-229th Battalion, had come to the conclusion that her instructor was full of shit. There was no comfort to be extracted from the dead, from flesh evaporated from bones. Nothing but numbers snipped short.

According to the briefing, the Eels had a directional storm generator. The storms scrambled vectors. The effect was localized, but it was troublesome when parallel columns ended up at opposite ends of a road a hundred kays apart, and fatal when movement along the planetary surface sent you underground instead. Too close and the storms might disintegrate your component atoms entirely. Cheris and the other captains had been assured that the weather-eaters would keep the storms contained, and that all the Kel infantry had to do was walk in and seize the generator.

That had been eighteen hours ago. It wasn’t that anyone was surprised by the plan’s failure. It was the carnage.

You can read the full sample online HERE.

Rating: 10 out of 10

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  • Matthew
    July 19, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Have you read Lee’s book of short stories, Conservation of Shadows? I fell in love with Lee’s writing from that.

  • Thea
    July 25, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    I haven’t! But I’m going to give it a try now–I’m so eager to read ANYTHING from Lee. This book was so freaking amazing! Thanks for the rec 🙂

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