Author: Yoon Ha Lee
Title: Ninefox Gambit
Series: Machineries of Empire #1
This year started out very well – at least with regards to my SF reading 😉 I have only had the misfortune of reading one dud during these first two months of 2020, and it was fantasy, which I’ll definitely scour in a scathing review sometime in the future – but as this review deals with a violent military SF of the highest order, I shall focus on that with all the delight and diligence it deserves.
Ninefox Gambit, the first installment in Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, presents a world in which math is the language of magic. Or, more precisely, where math begets magic – as long as there are people who absolutely believe in this possibility. The magic of math – of geometry and probability, of statistics and analysis – is a lethal one. The unforgiving inevitability of right angles and straight lines alters the fabric of the universe, creating temporal pockets of reality where life becomes impossible. Radiation, mutation, extreme temperatures – whatever you like, whatever you deem necessary, is at the tips of your fingers. The only thing you need to do is to have enough soldiers to make a meaningful formation and keep it despite constant winnowing by the opposite forces – and, of course, social belief.
Here’s where things become tricky. The power of the mathematical magic is based on popular belief. It can be upheld only through meticulously calculated and obsessively observed rituals and modes of behavior dictated by a uniformly accepted calendar: such and such number of days in a week; such and such day a sacred one; such and such rituals falling on certain dates; such and such number of human sacrifices made when occasion demands. The belief must be absolute and unquestioned; it must form the foundation of the people’s worldview, must be inculcated from the start and rigorously, continuously reinforced. Otherwise you’re bound to find calendrical rot at the core of your perfectly oiled and ticking empire – a dissident movement, a desperate revolution against the totalitarian society which treats an individual only as a replaceable cog in the machine.
Kel Cheris is a soldier of the Empire. She kills at its behest and is willing to be killed for its purposes, so unswervingly and unquestioningly dedicated she is to the system that formed her. She’s intelligent and sensitive, and yet there is no doubt in her mind about the righteousness of her empire’s cause. The sole existence of heretics weakens the empire; as the calendrical rot they voluntarily or involuntarily create through the change of their beliefs about the nature of reality they inadvertently become a risk to the empire – after all, their dissidence, if unchecked and unchallenged, can topple over the sanctified order upheld by the Hexarchate, the all-powerful factions controlling different aspects of the empire.
As you can imagine, there’s always work for a soldier of the Empire. People are not easily governed, even in a totalitarian system; they tend to inconveniently have ideas, and to – even more inconveniently – act on them. And when calendrical rot is discovered at the heart of the Empire, in the nigh-impregnable Fortress of Scattered Needles, the danger becomes great and imminent enough to warrant the use of very special weapon. And this is a very special weapon indeed – the essence of an insane undead general and infamous mass murderer, Shuos Jedao. Kel Cheris, due to her uncommon mastery of mathematics coupled with her military experience, is chosen, and manipulated, into becoming Jedao’s vessel. Their personalities are separate, and yet with time may bleed into each other, posing a risk of Jedao ascending to power once again – which is why Cheris is a perfect choice: her life is, after all, expendable. All she needs to do when she discovers Jedao’s growing influence on her is to put a gun to her head and pull the trigger. And she, a good little solider, is willing to do exactly that.
I’ll be frank. I was rooted to the pages of Ninefox Gambit from the beginning. I love books where nothing is simple and where the reader needs to sweat a bit from the opening page to decipher how the world works and what is truly happening. In this regard Lee’s book reminds me both of Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon and Leckie’s Ancillary Justice – we’re thrown in the middle of it without a word of explanation – and with the author’s expectation that we’re intelligent enough to figure it all out eventually ;).
Lee’s mastery over his world is complete. There’s nothing left to chance and even if the mechanics of the math-magic remain behind the scenes and are presented only through its effects, the logic of the system is wholly comprehensible and – at least at the first, admittedly fast reading – without noticeable holes. Because the world seems complete from the get-go, Lee can focus on his characters, creating wonderfully complex and believable protagonists from a very stereotypic mould and throwing them into a cauldron of happenstance, manipulation, lies and betrayal, diverse goals and conflicting loyalties. It is a pure pleasure to see the protagonists and their relationship grow and change, and their journey makes the ending not only believable, but to some extent inescapable. And I’m not talking here only about Cheris and Jedao, though they undoubtedly form the heart of the novel. Definitely worth mentioning is the existence of Servitors – independent AIs with computational and cognitive capabilities far beyond human and yet still remaining in a form of slavery to the Empire. There is a lot to discover there, and I would love to read more about the peculiar position of Servitors, but by this point I have faith in Lee that he’ll be able to deliver a solid explanation :D. Their plight is another complex, intricate part of the whole, and though I have an idea where it’s all headed, in this instance I’ll be quite happy if my predictions come true ;).
A totalitarian regime and democratic dissidents, a lethal struggle for political power and individual immortality. Is this a political novel, then? Thankfully, though political elements are quite pronounced and, I’d argue, necessary, Ninefox Gambit doesn’t turn into a political treatise, focusing instead on the basics: human rights and social obligations, trust and belief, responsibility and empathy. It’s all done in a subtle, offhanded manner, as we learn about certain things together with the main protagonist, and we discover that we can question some of our assumptions along her.
There is a wonderful poetic quality to the language: not only in the names given to many technological and math-magical inventions, such as threshold winnower or cindermoths, but also in the astoundingly whimsical descriptions scattered here and there among the brutal action and carnage – or even of the brutal action and carnage. There is also a consciously restricted – yet all the more powerful for it – application of Korean mythology: especially kumiho, the nine-tailed fox.
If I have one small criticism it is directed toward the old, old trope of a redeemed villain. I’m all for redeemed villains, within certain limits. I just don’t take well to mass murderers claiming their actions were the lesser evil and they serve the greater good, or those who believe that one good deed erases their past atrocities (yes, hello Vader ;)). Jedao is a wonderfully complex and compelling character, who understands his actions and accepts responsibility for them. There are a few feeble signals from Lee, however, that attempt to show him as a victim of circumstance – and these I deem unnecessary.
In short, Ninefox Gambit is an excellent military SF. I’ll be returning to the world of Hexarchate very soon and eagerly, and I can wholeheartedly recommend Lee’s book to all those who like a bit of challenge – in this case, the reward is very high. And if you’re still not convinced, Bart’s review should dispel any lingering doubts :). And, for balance, here you can find an intriguing little piece on how SF can inadvertently inspire military.