Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire, #1)Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read a lot of science fiction. I find reading science fiction diverting, stimulating and usually a lot of fun. I finish most books in three to five days depending on my schedule and what else is going on in my life. I struggled with Ninefox Gambit. It took me 3 weeks to finally finish it. I abandon books if I am not having fun after two or three sittings. I am glad I didn’t give up on Ninefox Gambit.

We are thrown right in the deep end at the beginning of Ninefox Gambit. Cheris is a soldier and a gifted mathematician. She serves the Hexarchate; six factions or guilds that govern her part of the universe. Each faction is responsible for a facet of life within the Hexarchate. Cheris is a part of the Kel, the military faction. Ninefox Gambit starts with Cheris involved in a bloody skirmish. We get some idea of how combat works in the Hexarchate. Kel soldiers are able to use exotic weapons by deploying in a formation that uses the effects of the Hexarchate “calendar”.

I know. I was baffled too. We get given no indication of what the calendar is or how a formation works. I knew there was something important going on, but I felt too lost to be able to follow what was happening.

I put away my Kindle and picked up another book. Yet, I kept thinking of Cheris and the world of Ninefox Gambit. So I picked up where I had left off and powered through. I am glad I did, because we are swiftly introduced to General Shuos Jedao – disembodied, disgraced and quite possibly insane. Jedao is immortal and imprisoned by the Kel hierarchy after causing a brutal massacre 400 years ago. He may or may not be crazy but is a brilliant military tactician and is used by the Kel when his expertise is required.

An important world (the wonderfully named Fortress of Scattered Needles), is taken by heretics who install their own calendar in rebellion against the doctrines of the Hexarchate. The Fortress is protected by unassailable defences and lies in a strategic sector. Cheris is chosen as Jedao’s anchor – together they command the Hexarchate’s forces as they attempt to subdue the rebellion and retake the fortress.

We get to learn a lot more about the world through conversations between Cheris and Jedao as well as short vignettes from other characters caught up in the action. There are plots within plots and a lot of political intrigue. There are games with exotic rules and flashbacks to Jedao’s life and the events that led up to his immortality and imprisoning. There is also violence, and lots of blood and gore.

At times, Ninefox Gambit reads like conventional military science fiction. Exotic weapons (deadly fungus anyone?), spies and shouty sergeants. Yet, all of this action makes sense in the context of the structure of the Hexarchate. The world is governed through a combination of indoctrination and brute strength. Cheris and Jedao are the tip of the spear that is intended to destroy the rebels.

If you are still with me, you probably know that Ninefox Gambit relies on the reader being somewhat familiar with the tropes of science fiction and fantasy. I (and other readers on Goodreads) were reminded of Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy. There are similarities – we have an unreliable narrator in Cheris and a brutal regime attempting to suppress a rebellion. Just like the Radch trilogy, Ninefox Gambit is deeper and a lot more interesting than your run of the mill military science fiction.

Yoon Ha Lee has built a compelling, and challenging, universe – one that I hope will be explored in further volumes in the “Machineries of Empire” series.

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