Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Unknown-1Ninefox Gambit
Yoon Ha Lee
Solaris, 384 pages.
Review by Iain Maloney

Ninefox Gambit, the first in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, grew out of his short story “The Battle of Candle Arc” (published in Clarkesworld October 2012) and is a military space opera on the kind of canvas fans of Iain M Banks will appreciate. Captain Kel Cheris is chosen to lead an assault on the Fortress of Scattered Needles which has fallen to heretics. She is accompanied by the uncorporeal Shuos Jedao, a brutal tactical genius who went mad and massacred two armies – the enemy and his own – a crime for which his body was executed while his spirit was kept alive in the ‘black cradle’, making him an immortal prisoner. Every once in a while, when circumstances demand his undeniable talents, he is resurrected and tasked with leading the Kel to victory. Understandably no one trusts Jedao, but the hexarchate – the society they belong to – feel they have no choice. Heresy can undermine the structures of society and bring the edifice crashing down.

This is a tale of wheels within wheels, secrets, hidden agendas, ulterior motives and plans that take centuries to reach fruition. It’s intricately plotted in a way that is frustrating for a reviewer who wishes to avoid spoilers, the central question of the novel is whether you can ever truly trust another person – even one who you share a skull with.

Lee makes good use of the concept of anchoring, exploring the two-minds-in-one-body from both humorous and sinister angles. Cheris and Jedao don’t have access to each other’s thoughts but a certain amount of ‘bleeding’ occurs affecting Cheris’s accent and body language, and rather than proximity breeding contempt, a bond forms between the two that might prove ultimately unbreakable.
Ninefox Gambit is a brilliant introduction to a trilogy, unfortunately it is let down by a difficult opening that may put off readers.

Science fiction and fantasy world builders face a difficult choice. You’ve created your setting – anything from a city to a galactic empire – and filled notebooks with Tolkein-esque maps, raided dictionaries of, say, ancient Norse and adapted vocabulary from dynastic China for place names, government ministries and military ranks, blurred the lines between, for example, Shinto, Buddhism and Taoism to create an underlying religion and stretched current socio-political trends to their logical breaking point. You could fill several Silmarillions with encyclopedic breakdowns of climate, geology, market forces and fashions, but you have a novel to write, characters to introduce, stories to tell. As much as we all love coherent, imaginative brave new worlds, they are the background, the stage upon which the story plays out, not the story itself. So you’re faced with a choice. How do you introduce your readers to your Creation?

There are two main options. There’s Asimov’s Encyclopedia Galactica approach. You step outside the story and explain things directly to the reader. While these passages tend to be dry and boring they have the benefit of getting it all out of the way in a few paragraphs. A brief interlude and then on with the action. However Douglas Adams pretty much ruined this approach for the rest of us.

The second option is to drop your readers in at the deep end with a few flotation aids and let them sink or swim. This is much more difficult to pull off but when it works – see China Mieville’s The City and the City for example – it enhances the reader’s enjoyment and understanding – knowledge earned is sweeter than knowledge tossed in your path – and gives the book a more pleasing shape.

Yoon Ha Lee chose the second option for Ninefox Gambit and doesn’t quite manage to find the balance between allowing the world to unfold on its own terms and not baffling the reader. The first two chapters are too full of unexplained terms, confusing social conventions and an underlying system that remains frustratingly vague even after two readings. It is as much a weakness of editing as it is of writing – the author is often too immersed in their own universe to see it from the outside and this is where an editor should step in. It’s a huge shame because the universe Lee has created and the story he tells are thrilling, but it takes effort to get beyond the opening and into the guts of the book.
Once it gets going the plot rattles along with electrifying tension and pace leading to a climax that manages to achieve the often impossible task of giving a satisfying ending to this story arc while setting up the sequel. The interplay of espionage, treachery and tactical inventiveness make this much more enjoyable and varied than a lot of military science fiction, though the set-piece battles are suitably dramatic and bloody.

Lee is clearly building somewhere he intends to inhabit for some time – as well as the initial short story and the promised trilogy, another short story is forthcoming in anthology An Alphabet of Embers. Perhaps volume two or a further short story will help us better understand the hexarchate and their hazy calendrical system.

This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity Issue 4.