Review of ‘Ninefox Gambit’ by Yoon Ha Lee

If Aliette de Bodard and Anne Leckie joined forces to write their version of ‘Silence of the Lambs’ set in a space war imagined by Iain M Banks it might end up a bit like ‘Ninefox Gambit’. For all that, the novel is entirely original, with a sonorous, almost detached rhythm that makes it uniquely compelling.
Other reviewers have made comparisons with ‘Apocalypse Now’, with the Kurtz character centre stage. In the movie, Kurtz is beyond reason and in the source novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ he’s already dead. Jedao, the rogue general in ‘Ninefox Gambit, is both. Held in stasis in the mysterious black cradle, he becomes a ghost mentor to recently promoted general Cheris when their minds are spliced in order to retake a strategically placed space fortress that has fallen to heretics.
The civilisation at the heart of this story is called the hexarchate, whose five castes have different social and political functions. Cheris begins the book as a young female captain in the military Kel. During conflict, the Kel subsume their individualities in ‘formation instinct’, which makes them hard to defeat but easy to control.
This hard-won condition is a correlative for the society as a whole, which does not favour disobedience. For example, Cheris is disgraced after a mission fails to secure enemy technology, despite being ordered to leave it, while in an earlier epoch before formation instinct is invented, erstwhile brilliant General Jadeo is able to slaughter millions including his own troops thanks to their almost blind loyalty.
Cheris’s story overlays Jadeo’s in a number of interesting ways. Many hexarchate citizens are bred according to the strictures of their castes; however, where different talents are discovered they are not stamped out but utilised. Thus Jedao begins as a Shuros assassin (unlike the purely military Kel, the Shuros handle espionage, amongst other things), while Cheris is gifted at maths, which would normally place her in the Nirai caste.
There is thus an important blurring of roles that is key to characters’ place in the story. The overlay is also important in comparing the characters’ defining military campaigns, which are both sieges. Later, this overlay becomes more literal as Cheris uses exotic technologies to explore her mentor’s past.
Time is relative in both the workings of the universe and also the human mind; the titular gambit takes this duality and spins it into an intricate but viscerally effective conspiracy. Finding out who is at the centre of it all depends on understanding the deceptively simple concept of a calendar that determines everything about this complex future society.
The calendar informs everything and includes grotesque details like exact dates that heretics are tortured to death, similar to Guy Fawkes night, but with real people. Heretics are those who have proposed different calendars, like one that enables a populace to have some degree of nominal choice, or ‘democracy’ as it’s quaintly known.
The idea of a calendrical system determining every aspect of a society is less alien than at first appears. Whether harvesting crops, operating machinery or programming computers, technology has always been time-based because it relies on cause and effect. The novel’s calendrical system codifies a society’s entire chronology to such an extent that new technologies emerge from it. To put it another way, imagine a coloured cloth that has water poured over it that’s then twisted so the water comes out again, subtly altered.
The twisting is significant. One of my issues with the novel isn’t its complexity or its deliriously inventive language, both of which are joys; rather it’s that both the hexarchate and Kel Command are such a bunch of bastards it’s hard to understand why anyone would sacrifice as much as Cheris does to defend them. Of course, there is more at play here than is initially apparent, but it’s a bold narrative that hangs together because of two elements.
One is the dynamic between Cheris and Jedao, which goes from a dubious mentor relationship to something more fittingly strange. The other is the sheer science fictional poetry at work in this book.
I often have issues with actual SF poetic verse as it seems to be written by people with no understanding of either poetry or SF, who don’t have the patience or ability to write a proper short story. Indeed, anyone who fancies having a go because poetry has fewer words should read ‘Ninefox Gambit’. It is a textbook example of the blend of language and idea that our best contemporary SF does so well. I mean, look at that title! The rhythm of it, the mystery. It sort of makes sense and then doesn’t (sorry, how many foxes?), but by then it’s in your mind like a BeeGees tune or, worse, the cybernetic soul of a long-dead crazy general. Meanwhile, the fortress Cheris and Jedao are trying to retake is called the Fortress of Scattered Needles. There are none of your prosaic death stars in this galaxy, sunshine.
Often people who don’t read SF take exception to its tropes because they are over familiar. Here too the author’s brilliant language triumphs. Not once do we read the word ‘starship’ or even ‘ship’. No, these are ‘moths’, a name that is as bizarre as it is weirdly fitting. All you need to understand is that needlemoths are nippy and convenient, boxmoths are what you’d use to shift loads of stuff and cindermoths are seriously bad news unless you’re in command of one.
What the author has grasped so well is the ability to create an impression of a wondrous technology without either going into too much laborious, irrelevant and, let’s face it, erroneous detail about how it works (because if Yoon Ha Lee knew how to actually build a cindermoth I’m willing to bet he would have done it) or glossing over the world-building and hoping we won’t notice.
This novel has had terrific word of mouth for a while now. People I’ve spoken to describe it as challenging, as if Yoon Ha Lee is an SF author’s SF author. There may be some truth in that description if only for the uncompromising trust in the reader’s intelligence, but I suspect a more generous aesthetic. It feels like an appreciation of the genre’s possibilities expressed in fashion that is at once coherent and liberating. Not for nothing are the power plays at work between the main characters an exercise in long-game subversion.

Visit Yoon Ha Lee’s website

Buy ‘Ninefox Gambit’ by Yoon Ha Lee

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