Yoon Ha Lee, Ninefox Gambit (2016)

Ninefox Gambit

Author: Yoon Ha Lee

Title: Ninefox Gambit

Format: Paperback

Pages: 512

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.

fox spirits 1853
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Noble Lady dancing with her dead Lord’s Helmet, surrounded by fox spirits, 1853

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.

Score: 10/10

35 thoughts on “Yoon Ha Lee, Ninefox Gambit (2016)

  1. Fantastic, lyrical review!! It reminds me I have yet to read part 3. My review for part 2 is one of the texts I’m most proud of, so just for the sake of that I should finish the complete series, but somehow I fear this series might run a bit out of steam near the end.
    Thanks for the mention!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! ☺️
      I’ll certainly read your review for the second installment, but only after I read the book 😄
      I’m very intrigued by the world and quite taken with Lee’s poetic yet unflinchingly brutal take on military SF, which is so close to fantasy, especially with all the names of technology, as to make no difference 😉
      You’re welcome – you very much deserve it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t think there’s many spoilers in my review, it’s rather an investigation of the ethics of military SF, as the novels got some serious (unwarranted imo) flack about that, and by extension military SFs readers too.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. I read your review with a vague impression that I have seen it before, and voila! There’s even a comment I left 🤣
            But I do appreciate it all the more after I finished 9FG so thanks for bringing it to my attention!

            I very much agree with you on all the crucial points. A critique of 9FG from the ethical perspective just doesn’t hold water and for me is just an attempt to twist a purely esthetical choice into a moral one – which in itself is a rather morally dubious strategy. But then again, I feel that the progressive commentary on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness also completely misses the point, showing that someone simply didn’t understand a word of the novel 😉

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been shifting this one down the TBR for some time now, aware that it requires a great degree of concentration, so I’m waiting for the right moment and the right frame of mind to approach it, because I have understood from the start that this is no beach read. Your review encourages me to *find* that space and finally read what every comment I encountered defines as an amazing narrative experience.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome! 🙂

      I think you’d actually love this one, Maddalena! It delves into many of the themes that seem close to your heart – at least that’s what I inferred from your reviews 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I would be shit at magic in this world 😀

    That sounds pretty interesting but I’m not sure whether it would be too complicated for me. I think I want to try a sample. Especially since you compare it to ‘Gardens of the Moon’ and I love that book! And I don’t mind being left in the dark for a while. As long as it all comes together & makes sense at some point 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Do give it a try and don’t give up after the first chapter! 😀
      It is confusing at first, especially that many typical SF things such as different types of spaceships are given new names (cindermoths for example ;)). But the story quickly drags you in, so if you persevere in the first few chapters chances are you’ll enjoy it quite a lot! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a helluva review. You sold it perfectly and I’m definitely making this a must-buy as soon as possible. I absolutely love the idea of whimsically merging math, music, and magic together. The 3 M’s make for a magic system that is just way too perfect to ignore. I’ve seen the cover of this one around but I could never tell if it’s something I want to pick up. Thanks for sharing this brilliant and extremely thorough review, as always, Ola! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan, as always! 😀
      Yes, the cover doesn’t really convince; it makes more sense after you’ve read the book, but even then the way Lee describes certain phenomena and processes is subject to very subjective perspectives and you could easily see them differently than the artist 😉
      I think you’d actually like this one a lot; it ticks all the right boxes for you, from sociopathy to mayhem to subtle characterization and one-in-a-million chances 😀 And believe me, I’m the one to know! 😄

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I already went on to hunt down a copy of the first book hahah Hope book 2 and 3 impresses you just as much though. Nonetheless, you really made this one irresistible for me hahahah And I even got Gardens of the Moon queued up at some point this year. I feel like I’m in for some REALLY good ones. 😀 Thank you, Ola!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, you’re very welcome, Lashaan! 😀 I do hope you’ll enjoy both of them!

          I heard book 2 is less impressive, which is probably only to be expected once you know he world and the foundation of the plot. I’ll certainly see for myself – soon! 😉

          This year started pretty well for me in terms of books – I only had one stinker, and it’s March already! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  5. buriedinprint

    This is one that I’ve picked up and considered a few times in the SFF bookstore (and ultimately chose a couple of others instead – ones recommended by the staff usually, always good choices too) and I’ll take another look next time, thanks to your enthusiasm. I like what you have to say about the way that the political angle of the story is handled. And I also appreciate your having compared it to Leckie’s trilogy. That’s one that left me wholly confused for a good while but I knew to expect that and, eventually, it was less disorienting (or, only disorienting in a more satisfying way, if you know what I mean). So I’ll expect a touch of that here too, whenever I make it to reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I highly recommend it! 🙂 If you enjoyed Leckie, you’re in for a treat.

      Incidentally, I think this cover doesn’t do the book justice and somehow puts off potential readers – after reading the book I see the rationale behind it, but I still think it could have been so much more enticing! 🙂 I had this book in my hands a good few times before I finally picked it up, and I did it only after a recommendation from a blogger, whose opinions are usually similar to mine.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is probably the best review and explanation of this book I’ve seen to date. Truly outstanding.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it! I will add I read Jedao’s character a slightly different way and have no idea if I’m right or not- but he makes references to not remembering why he did what he did or even the act itself. Im wondering if it’s less a case of reformed villain and more of a case of a villain lurking behind the curtain that is yet to be revealed. I need to finish up with these books before I forget it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sarah! I’m very happy you enjoyed my review 😊

      Yes, Jedao is a bit of a mystery – which is a great thing, as it makes me want to pick up the subsequent books all the sooner 😉 I think he holds back till the end, not knowing if he can trust Cheris – and only when she ingests his memories does she get the full picture. The next book awaits! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I did start the second book at some point and haven’t finished- not the books fault, I just had other priorities- but I do know it felt a little different than this one. It was still interesting- I’m curious to see how it all plays out.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I heard that the second book is different, and a bit underwhelming – but I think it would be difficult to top the fantastic Ninefox Gambit anyway 😉 I will definitely read Raven Stratagem, soon! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

            1. It’s less exciting and deals with what many people felt was a side element of Ninefox 😉 I’m going to read it either way, but my expectations had been adequately curbed 😄


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