Book Review: Ninefox Gambit
Oh. My. God. I have found my new favorite science fiction novel.
All right, let's back up. I don't normally read a ton of science fiction (she says, three of her last four reviews being science fiction). I tend to gravitate more toward fantasy in books, sci-fi in TV. So I'd been debating buying Ninefox Gambit for a while; on the one hand, the reviews were pretty spectacular and it was nominated for the Hugo. On the other, it seemed like harder sci-fi than I usually enjoy. I finally bought it and then figured I'd cram it in quickly between Waking Gods and Skullsworn (which will be my next review) since it's short.
Then it blew me away.
Ninefox Gambit tells the story of Kel Cheris, a captain in the military forces of the hexarchate. When she is disgraced by using heretical tactics on the battlefield, the higher-ups give Cheris a chance to redeem herself: retake the impregnable Fortress of Scattered Needles from a heretical faction. They like her plan, but it means binding herself (quite literally) to the most notorious war criminal in hexarchate history, a madman who never lost a battle but deliberately killed his entire army. Cheris must use his knowledge of tactics to take the fortress, while guarding against any deceptions that might get her whole army killed.
I'm going to start with what really got me about Ninefox Gambit: the world. We all know I'm a sucker for good worlds, and Lee has created something truly unique here. The hexarchate is made up of six factions, as the name implies, each specializing in something different. The Kel, for example, are the warriors and military. (The hexarchate used to be a heptarchate, and we find out more on how they lost a faction as the story progresses).
That in and of itself isn't particularly unusual, but the way they rule and power their technology is. They rely on calendars - the importance of dates, festivals, etc. The belief behind the calendar fuels all their best technology. It's all powered by a highly complex system of mathematics, which Lee doesn't go too deeply into except to say that there's lots of math involved. Unfortunately, there are heretical calendars out there, and any space where a heretical calendar holds sway will cause their calendrical technology to stop working. (You can see now why they want to retake a fortress being held by heretics so badly).
It's all very Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law - any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And the best part, for me at least? Lee doesn't explain anything.
Now, that's not going to work for many people. Most readers want some sort of guiding narrative hand that explains world-specific terms and alleviates confusion. I am an outlier; I want the author to confuse the hell out of me. Explain nothing. Let me figure everything out as I read and develop an understanding of the world naturally, as I would if I had grown up in it. (China Mieville does this well - it's one of the reasons I enjoy his books so much).
Lee has done that in spades here. His first chapter has gorgeous prose and lets me develop a good sense of Cheris as a character, all the while dropping unexplained world-specific terms. I was so confused by the end of it and so excited to have found a book like this. By the time I'd read the next three or four chapters, I had a pretty solid understanding of the world, gained organically by watching Cheris move through it.
With the world out of the way, let's move to the characters. At its core, this book is about two forces working in concert: Cheris, our heroic captain, and Shuos Jedao, the mad military general whose consciousness is literally living in her shadow and her mind.
Cheris is an excellent vehicle for the reader. She's not so high in the chain of command at the novel's start that we can't relate to her or her struggles. Lee paints a good picture of her care for her soldiers, her intelligence that she doesn't always give free rein to, her willingness to do what it takes.
Jedao, meanwhile, is nebulous. We know he's crazy, or supposed to be, but he doesn't always act like it. Most of his advice is good - or is it? What if he's got a second agenda? We wonder all these things with Cheris as she walks the line between her own instincts for command and Jedao's suggestions.
Where the characters really shine together are in the book's small moments. When Cheris and Jedao share snippets of their past with each other. When Jedao insists Cheris get some sleep. For all that Cheris did not volunteer to take on this role, her partnership with Jedao is the axis that the book turns upon. Ninefox Gambit would fall on its face if their relationship had been poorly done, but Lee weaves their lives together with a deft touch.
There are other fascinating side characters - the leaders of the Shuos and Nirai factions stand out, as does one of the military captains - but we glimpse them only in passing for the most part, staying focused on Cheris, Jedao and the conflict they are trying to resolve.
Speaking of which, wow. Lee knows how to write a war. He uses his aforementioned gorgeous prose to highlight the atrocities of war. He'll describe people being torn apart, their limbs falling off from a calendrical weapon, with the prettiest words you'll ever hear. It makes the battle scenes feel surreal, almost, which might be intentional. And make no mistake, there are some horrific casualties.
Through it all, he keeps the pace moving. I never once felt like the book ran slow. It's essentially all battle scenes, both in space and on the ground, interspersed with scenes of Cheris/Jedao making tactical decisions. Lee strikes the perfect balance between the two, mixed with those beautiful character moments.
Clearly, I'm gushing, so I'll cut myself off here. This is my new favorite science fiction novel, with only the exception of Dune. I am absolutely thrilled that the sequel comes out next month, and I'll be the bookstore the day it comes out to buy it.