Hugo reading: Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Today’s novel was Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee.

I really didn’t expect to like this one, since it is military science fiction, which doesn’t generally appeal to me.  And, to be honest, it was rather like reading a book in another language – French, perhaps, because I understood most of it, but I had to work at it, and I felt as though there was vocabulary that eluded me.  I suspect one needs quite a visual sort of imagination to follow what was going on with the various battles and campaigns, and I just don’t have that sort of brain.

But despite all of that, I really liked it.  I didn’t quite love it, mostly because of my difficulty following the action sequences, but I’m definitely going to want to re-read it, and then go and read the other books in the series.

Also, let it be known that Yoon Ha Lee did not kill the cat.  And about time, too, if you ask me.  This alone would push Ninefox Gambit up the ballot for me.

So, what’s it about?

Well, once again, we have a novel that is full of political factions and twistiness.  (This, and world-about-to-end scenarios have been frequent themes on this year’s ballot, in addition to gratuitous cat cruelty.)  It’s set in a spacefaring universe ruled by the Hexarchy, which comprises six factions each representing a particular personality type, for want of a better word.  The Kel are known for their loyalty and sense of duty, and are soldiers (they are, in fact, programmed with a ‘formation instinct’, which makes them unable to disobey an order from a superior); the Shuos for being tricksters and spies who treat everything as a game; Nirai are the mathematicians; Rahal are, for want of a better word, the theologians, or perhaps more accurately, the Inquisition; and so forth (we didn’t see a lot of the other two groups, the Andan and the Vidona; the former seem to be very gregarious and people-oriented; the Vidona seem pretty closely allied with the Rahal, and I haven’t quite figured out the differences between them).

The most interesting thing about this universe is the way mathematics, theology, and magic are all combined.  Wars are fought using ‘formations’, which seem to be mathematical spells, but these only work if enough people believe in the appropriate Calendrical system and follow its rituals.  Formations, and Calendrical mathematics seem to underpin just about everything, and so heresy becomes a huge threat to the natural order, because if enough people believe in a heresy, it changes something akin to the laws of physics.

It’s pretty amazing worldbuilding, but one is rather dropped into it and expected to swim (hence the sensation of reading a book in another language – I even have the beginnings of a language headache to prove it).  At one point, I went online to see if it was part of a series, and it is – but it’s the first book, so clearly Lee believes in making his readers work.

In terms of the story itself, it centres around Kel Cheris, who is a captain in the army, and also a very able mathematician.  For reasons that are not entirely clear, she is somewhere between disgraced and expendable (a little of both, I think). And yet, she is asked to provide a plan to lead an attack on a dangerous new heretical enclave, which has taken over some important infrastructure, leading to an outbreak of Calendrical rot.  Calendrical rot is a problem, because normal formations don’t work in an area which has been too contaminated by a new heresy, so the standard military tactics are ineffective.  Cheris proposes resurrecting the brilliant general and omnicidal traitor, Shuoi Jedao, who has been kept in stasis for just such eventualities.  Her reasoning is that they don’t need a weapon or a military strategy so much as they need someone who can rewrite the strategy in the light of the calendrical rot and the immediate tactical situation.

Her plan is chosen, and as a result, Cheris finds herself as a brevet general in charge of the invasion, with Jedao living inside her head, advising her and manipulating her.

To me, the most interesting part of the book is the relationship between Jedao and Cheris, and the way they interact with each other.  Jedao does, in many ways, act as a good mentor to Cheris, but he is not necessarily on her side, and he clearly has an agenda of his own – though what this is doesn’t become clear until very late in the book.  High command also has its own agenda, which it is not inclined to reveal in its entirety, and the heretics are not necessarily without their own agendas as well.  (I particularly enjoyed the memos from Vahenz afrir dai Noum, who is advising the Heptarch of the heretics, and who has a delightfully sardonic tone, not to mention a taste for really good patisserie.)

There’s a lot of fairly grotesque violence in this book, even if the cats are safe.  There is a lot of death, too, much of it pointless.  There is also something very akin to rape late in the book.  Normally, these are the sort of things that would make me back away fast from a book, but there is a dryness in the writing that I found distanced me from a lot of it.  Lee does excellent worldbuilding and twisty twisty plots and relationships, but I’m not entirely sure that creating an emotional connection is a strength of his, and honestly, in this circumstance, I’m rather glad of it. Despite this, he *does* do good characterisation.  I really liked both the protagonists, and most of the minor characters.

I think Ninefox Gambit may actually have to go to the top of my ballot.  It’s hard to compare a complete book with an excerpt, of course, but given that I am generally biased towards fantasy and away from military science fiction, the fact that Ninefox Gambit has managed to appeal to me as much as The Obelisk Gate did suggests that, for my money at least, it’s the better book.

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