Book Reviews

Book Review: Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1), by Yoon Ha Lee

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Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1)

By: Yoon Ha Lee

Published: June 14, 2016

The Rundown: “Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics.  Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics.  Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake.  If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.  Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao.  The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.  The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own.  As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao—because she might be his next victim.”

Don’t Get Strung Out by the Way I Look: Most of the cover is occupied by the image of a space forthress, the Fortress of Scattered Needles which Kel Cheris has been assigned to capture.  The fortress is bizarre in design, a vertical disk with sharp spikes of metal sticking out of it.  While I understand that these are supposed to represent the “scattered needles,” I can’t see the architectural reason for including them.  I’d assumed that the scattered needles were a property of the invariant ice, a sort of high-tech shield.  Though the design of the Fortress may not make sense, but it does make for an arresting cover.

What a Wonderful World: Kel Cheris lives in an empire called the hexarchate, which runs on religious adherence to a calendar.  Here, “calendar” doesn’t refer only to a means of measuring time; it is a catch-all term for numerical systems in general.  In the world of Ninefox Gambit, things like how many hours are in a day and which base system you use affects how technology, and even reality itself, function.  For example, if your shield was constructed using a base ten number system, and you went into an enemy area and were attacked by a base twelve weapon, your shield would be ineffective.  In order to ensure status quo, the hexarchate uses a combination of military force, brainwashing, and torture to keep citizens in line.

The Good Guy: Kel Cheris is a captain who is assigned to lead the capture of the Fortress of Scattered Needles from calendrical heretics.  Kel Cheris is not a typical soldier; multiple characters remark that Cheris, being a math prodigy, is more suited for the Nirai (the engineering faction) than the Kel (the military faction).  Cheris joined the military in an attempt to find a tight-knit group into which she would belong.  See, Kel Cheris is from an ethnic minority with heretical religious ideas.  Unfortunately, Cheris has inherited her family’s heretical tendencies, which ultimately gets her in trouble with the hexarchate and leads to her becoming the vessel of the brilliant, undead general Shuos Jedao.

The Bad Guy: Kel Cheris’s ostensible opponents are the heretics of the Fortress of Scattered Needles, but the man she really needs to watch out for is the mass-murderer Shuos Jedao, who lives in her thoughts and in her shadow.  Shuos Jedao does not seem like a madman, which—combined with his brilliance as a tactician—makes him dangerous.  Despite having spent most of the past several centuries in the black cradle, Jedao is surprisingly adept at understanding and manipulating modern technologies, such as formation instinct (a sort of brainwashing that forces Kel to be loyal to their superiors).  As the novel progresses, Cheris’s and Jedao’s thoughts and personalities begin to bleed together, and it’s not always clear whose thoughts are whose.

A+: The most interesting part of the book was how it threw you into a world that operates on very different physical principles than our own with almost no explanation.  Basic parts of the world are not explained, such as what precisely the characters mean by the words “calendar,” “invariant,” and “threshold winnower.”  Rather, Lee provides hints and trusts that the readers are intelligent enough to figure things out for themselves.  Lack of exposition left more room for the characters’ plots and mind games.  Not to mention it felt nice not to be talked down to.

F-: Kel Cheris’s relationship with those under her command for the attack on the Fortress of Scattered Needles needed to be expanded upon.  It’s established that Cheris cares for his underlings, but this is shown more with her interactions with the soldiers in her original company than the commanders she works with later on.  Cheris doesn’t form relationships with any of those people, and it’s difficult to see why she would care about them later in the novel, since she never had much to do with them.  If you read it quickly, it seems like Cheris’s only “human” interactions consist of her being outmaneuvered by Shuos Jedao and watching soap operas with servitors.

Does it Represent…

Women: The main character is a woman, and her various underlings are also female.  The two main leaders of the heresy on the Fortress of Scattered Needles are also women.  This novel was very good at achieving gender parity.  I especially liked that Lee didn’t try to make the female characters “nice” compared to the male characters.  The women of the hexarchate are just as violent, cruel, and manipulative as the men.

People of Color: The citizens of the hexarchate are described as having black hair, brown eyes, and various skin tones, so they can arguably be any race.  However, they are coded Asian: there are nine-tailed foxes, the unlucky number four, and everyone uses chopsticks.  So… yeah, all the characters are Asian.

LGBT People:  Lee has accomplished what so many sci-fi authors have tried and failed to: created a world in which bisexuality is the norm AND the characters are actually bisexual.  Kel Cheris doesn’t get a love interest in the novel, but she remembers a female Shuos lover, and she’s described as preferring women.  The two Kel soldiers having an elicit tryst are both women.  When Cheris goes into Jedao’s memories, we see that he has had both male and female lovers.  In a world where everything is rigidly controlled by the government, it is interesting that in terms of sexuality, the government of Ninefox Gambit is more open-minded than most contemporary governments.

The Disabled: Jedao is deeply depressed, but the reasons why aren’t revealed until the end of the novel.

Memorable Quote: “’All communication is manipulation,’ said Jedao.  ‘You’re a mathematician.  You should know that from information theory.’”

Recommended For: People who like math, logic games, and brutal, gruesome violence.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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