Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (Machineries of Empire)

Starship Troopers meets Apocalypse Now – and they’ve put Kurtz in charge” is how author and reviewer, Stephen Baxter, describes Ninefox Gambit, and that pretty much nails it. Science fiction can be intimidating for some with its focus on hard sciences, but Ninefox Gambit goes further with its focus on mathematics and information theory in a story about fighting an impossible war.

Before you go “Eww, math is not my thing. Pass,” this debut title can be a challenge to read, even without accounting for the math, but it is a unique and refreshing piece of science fiction that is worth the read.

Ninefox Gambit drops readers into an imaginative world called the hexarchate empire that runs on mathematical beliefs. The empire is constantly at war with heretics who try to put a new belief system in place. Captain Kel Cheris uses unconventional tactics in carrying out her orders, which leaves her in disgrace, but also brings her to the attention of the empire’s leaders. She is tasked with retaking one of the empire’s fortresses from the heretics where failure could mean the end of the empire. Her secret weapon is the undead genius General Shuos Jedao, the general who has never lost a battle but supposedly went mad and turned traitor. His mind has been preserved for future use, and, even bodiless and stuck in Cheris’ mind, he is still a dangerous weapon.

Ninefox Gambit is a challenging read. There is no hand-holding, as Lee drops readers right into his story, and they just have to immerse themselves in for the ride. There are foreign cultures and customs, a large cast with strange names, places, technology, and weapons readers have to figure out, multiple viewpoints, complex politics and intrigues, and a confusing (but fascinating) belief system based on math. Lee writes cleanly and concisely, which kind of balances the foreignness of his world. It is military fiction, and he is brutally efficient with writing battle sequences and the constant deaths. What holds this story together is the well-developed characters of Cheris and Jedao and their interactions. Cheris provides heart to the story, the one who cares about people and what her actions mean but who believes in serving her empire. Jedao is an intriguing character and anti-hero, more than simply mad or a traitor. He is difficult to understand, especially as he seems to have his own agenda and far-reaching plans. The political scheming elevates this story beyond just a war story.

Look for Ninefox Gambit in the VBPL Catalog. Try the rest of the Machineries of Empire trilogy, The Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun. For more imaginative world-building set in space, try Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy (see review). For more military fiction and games in space, try Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (see review).

Review by Tracy V.

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