– By J.W. Fox –
Yoon Ha Lee’s debut novel received plenty of attention from the literary elites, earning a Nebula and Hugo nomination. Early customer reviews were also strong. Throw in the colorful cover, and this one moved to the top of my to-read list this Fall. Sadly, the novel falls far short of expectations and doesn’t seem to fit the typical mold of award-winning sci-fi.
To be fair, the book should not be read or evaluated based on its award nominations. Hugo Award nominations, in particular, do not come with a lot of credibility, whether with fans or book reviewers. With that in mind, this review was written with the objective of evaluating it the same as any sci-fi novel. Even at that modest standard, this book just does not stand out.
In a distant future, the universe is governed by six ruling factions called the hexarchate. Kel Cheris serves one of them, the Kel or warrior caste. The Kel resemble the Prussian military, obsessed with formations and strict obedience to orders. Kel Cheris is an infantry captain with a special aptitude for mathematics, which is an important skill for the job ahead. She is tasked with retaking an important space fortress from a rebellion known as the Liozh heresy. To help in her efforts, the hexarchate resurrect the legendary general Shuos Jedao and install his consciousness into Cheris’s head.
So what’s the catch? Before his consciousness was imprisoned in a computer, Shuos Jedao went mad and slaughtered thousands of innocent people during his last battle.
Ninefox Gambit reads like a hard/military sci-fu novel intended for a very small, niche group of readers. For the general science fiction fan, it is a tough read loaded with technical details, histories, bios, and confusing neologisms. The exposition is heavy and made especially difficult to comprehend thanks to the bizarre military terminology. The first 50 to 100 pages are particularly difficult to comprehend.
They call their form of war calendrical warfare, or control of the calendar. There are cindermoths (warships), hoppers (transports), logic grenades, threshold winnowers, data spikes, grand formations, and other such things used to describe space warfare. The terminology seems to be inspired by computer programming terms and Asian mythology. It is unclear why the author chose to go this route or whether this approach had some relevance or relation to any deeper theme.
The culture and symbols of the hexarchate draw from Asian mythology. For example, the Ninefox is short for the nine-tailed fox, a create from Chinese myth, and the sigil of one of the six factions. If there were some significance to the mythological reference, such as use as metaphors, it was not very clear. I am not familiar with Asian mythological traditions. It is safe to say most other Western readers will struggle as well.
In terms of the larger arc of the series, it was difficult to identify anything thematically unique or profound. The conflict largely resembles the familiar evil empire versus fledgling rebellion. The hexarchate is a totalitarian state, where individual liberty is irrelevant, all life is expendable, and above all, the government-approved calendar must be observed. It is described in theocratic terms but the story seems to be more about a great empire stamping out a rebellion on a huge space fortress.
The middle of the novel focuses on the Kel Cheris-Shuos Jedao dynamic. Cheris is in control of her body but Jedao’s voice is prominent in her head, as are some of his memories. Cheris comes from a strict military tradition fixated on obedience, formations, and unwavering loyalty. Jedao meanwhile is a creative thinker, free of any strict training or conditioning that would limit his strategic analysis or insight. The dynamic between them mirrors the broader dynamic between the hexarchate and the Liozh heresy. One obsesses about order and doctrine, while the other pursues greater autonomy and individualism.
Unfortunately, these elements are not well-developed. Combined with the intense world-building, it is difficult to understand the appeal of the novel from a broader science fiction perspective. Its unique military elements and discussions of strategy and tactics gives it appeal to niche readers, however. That would also explain their lack of concern with the stylistic issues. There is significant info-dumping and extensive use of passive voice which slowed the flow of the book. Pacing in the first half of the book is also an issue, as well as sections that felt like digressions from the plot.
Overall, Ninefox Gambit is a difficult and unsatisfying read. The world-building is indeed impressive. There is no doubt Yoon Ha Lee has an incredible imagination. However, he still has a ways to go as a storyteller. It isn’t a total failure. The story does have its moments, but just does not deliver consistently.
It is a little surprising that this book is getting award nominations. Frankly, it feels like a step backward for the genre, back towards overly-technical baroque prose rather than more inclusive, accessible story lines. The denser style worked for most of the last century but has steadily become less appealing to the broader sci-fi readership, as evidenced by commercial sales and reader reviews. Ninefox Gambit is for those hardcore readers who prefer the classic style, but few others.
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.