Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee
Seeing that the recent Hugo Award finalists announcement included Yoon Ha Lee’s novel, Revenant Gun, the concluding book in his Machineries of Empire trilogy, I thought I’d revisit the book that started it all, Ninefox Gambit, which was nominated for its own Hugo in 2017 (as was the second book in the series, Raven Stratagem, in 2018).
Ninefox Gambit is military science fiction unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Mathematics are a vital part of its military strategy; from the formations the battalions enact, to deployment of ships and weaponry, to intelligence gathering. The aim is to keep calendrical integrity intact in the face of threats from heretics bent on overthrowing the ruling hexarchate’s hierology. (Merely trying to function outside of the normal calendar is considered heresy.)
When Captain Cheris Kel of Heron Company employs unconventional (re: heretical) tactics to claim victory over the heretics on Dredge, she is disgraced. But her quick thinking and mathematical acumen bring her to the attention of Hexarch Shuos Mikodez, who advances her as a candidate to lead forces skirmishing trouble in the calendrical currents at the Fortress of Scattered Needles (located uncomfortably near the hexarchate itself). Charis proposes a solution which gains her the assignment, and she is paired with the infamous undead tactician Jedao Shuos who is a genius but also quite mad, having massacred his entire army at Hellspin Fortress hundreds of years earlier.
Through Charis’ mathematical prowess and Jedao’s experience as a strategist, their Kel fighting force moves against combatants at the Fortress of Scattered Needles, attempting to reverse the effects of the dreaded calendar rot initiated by their heresies. But eventually Charis realizes there’s another game in play, one where she doesn’t know the rules or even what the endgame might be.
Confused? I was. But there’s confused, and then there’s confusing. I found Ninefox Gambit confusing only when I tried to understand every bit of it, not when I sat back and let it unfold. When I just let go, it was glorious.
It was like me watching a rugby match. I know very little about the game, but enjoy the sheer physicality of it and can tell when something good is happening on the pitch, and I can enter into its state of effort and triumph. So it was with Ninefox Gambit. I understood enough to allow the story to build around me; the cohesion of the environment that author Yoon Ha Lee employs allows for the right emotion and focus to build along with the action, so ideas such as calendar rot fell easily into place.
And Ninefox Gambit is not limited to warfare. We glimpse Cheris’ background (complete with an amazing culture and traditions)making her more than merely a strategizing commander, not to mention the unfolding of the enigma that is Jedao Shuos. There are passages narrated by random soldiers, which humanize the military precision of the campaign without compromising the fighting unit’s overriding sense of obedience. And, unexpectedly, there is a series of communications between two high ranking heretics that is both insightful – and hilarious.
Simply extraordinary. Absolutely deserving its Hugo Award nod, as was Raven Strategem. And I have no doubt that Revenant Gun is just as deserving – I’ll find out soon. It’s next on my TBR list.