Review of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
by Yoon Ha Lee
When I finished Ninefox Gambit, I was left with so many questions. But they probably weren’t the questions you’d think I would have, if you know this novel’s reputation.
Captain Kel Cheris has been Noticed™, and that’s never good. Political machinations have found her brevetted to general and saddled with a ghost-like companion named Shuos Jedao. He was a renown general a few centuries ago, until he apparently went mad and massacred his own troops. The Kel are known for their rigorous—even suicidal—loyalty; the Shuos are known for their connivance and betrayal. Somehow, together, Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao must protect the hexarchate from heretics who have taken over the Fortress of Scattered Needles. If they don’t succeed, the heresy will literally spread throughout the hexarchate. The hexarchate’s technology functions on consensus belief—if people break away from the dominant belief system, centred on an intricate and inflexible calendar, then its technology and its pre-eminence will be finished. However, Jedao has ulterior motives even Cheris can’t divine. She better do so quickly before those motives, along with the unknown variables of the facts on the ground, kill her, everyone around her, and destabilize the only government and life she has ever known.
Ok, so, questions. If you have read this book or other reviews of it, you might expect me to ask for more details about how the calendrical technology of the hexarchate works. This seems to be a sticking point for most reviewers. Whether or not they praise the stubborn dearth of exposition, they always talk about wanting to know more. And, sure, I mean that I would be cool. But would you understand it?
Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude. But the majority of technology we see in science fiction is inexplicable to a modern reader—that is what makes it science fiction rather than science fact. Sure, you can insist that your science fiction technology be credibly extrapolated from present-day science (“hard science fiction”), but most science fiction, even the stuff we call hard SF, fails to do that rigorously. Lee’s writing is arguably the hardest of SF considering that all of the tech here is based on number theory—but it is so advanced it is indistinguishable from magic. And that’s true for a lot of science fiction that verges on science fantasy, especially when you start throwing around nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. I’ll return to this thought.
But first, questions. No, my questions were for Lee himself. I turned the final page, put down the book, tried to process it, and I found myself full of questions about how Lee’s experiences might have informed this book. Was the use of consensus reality influenced, at least in part, by Lee’s Korean background and the dichotomy between North and South Korea, wherein the former is quite literally a modern-day example of consensus reality in practice? How did Lee’s experiences as a trans man influence the transformations undergone by Cheris as a result of her uneasy partnership with Jedao? How did they inform the development of this faction-based society in general, which seems to have fairly fluid notions of gender and sexuality but also doesn’t (at least in the realm of society that we see in this book) particularly prioritize them?
I don’t know, maybe it’s the New Historicist in me that has me pursuing such angles. In any event, I scoured the Internet in search of answers. I didn’t find any answers specifically to my question, but I learned a lot about Lee. In this profile in Locus, Lee rightfully criticizes people who read Asian motifs into his work simply because of his Korean heritage:
I sometimes feel like readers have certain expectations because I’m an Asian-American writer. I got one Amazon review where it said that the stories had an Oriental flavor of seeking harmony instead of more traditional Western style conflict resolution. I’m like, ‘Really?’ I have pretty much not read Korean literature…. That’s not what I was trying to do, but if you see it, you see it. I sometimes wonder if that reader had seen those stories but with a non-Asian name on them, would they have seen the same things?
That’s such a valid point. White readers like myself can exoticize racialized writers. We can read into their work themes and connections that aren’t there because it allows us to feel more secure in our critique: oh, look at us, aren’t we so knowledgeable of other cultures? It is well-meaning but still reductive (not to mention racist). Of course, there are many situations where such connections do exist and deserve to be acknowledged. But we shouldn’t assume those connections exist just because of the writer’s background.
(Besides, on the specific subject of Lee’s use of consensus reality—umm, have y’all seen the United States these days? A sizable proportion have swallowed anti-vax nonsense and are protesting against a theory they don’t even understand. They elected Donald Trump as president. Consensus reality, thy name is America.)
So if I turn my mind from New Historicism to reader response, what do I see in Ninefox Gambit? Well, Lee and I are both mathematicians by training. I have a passing familiarity with number theory; I did some research during my summers as an undergrad that involved simplicial complexes and some wonderful, NP-hard stuff called spreading and covering numbers. (There’s a paper out there somewhere with my dead name on it if that topic sounds like your cup of tea, but we mostly came up with negative results.) In that respect I kind of identified with Cheris: her mind was so mathematically inclined that everyone pushed her towards joining the Nirai faction, which is the hexarchate’s applied technology branch. Cheris insisted on joining the militaristic, conformist Kel instead. I can relate in the sense that I dodged the people who urged me to go into grad school and research, for I knew my passion was in teaching. Sometimes I do miss higher-level math, but I know I wouldn’t have found happiness there. And when it comes to Lee, I can relate to this fascination with the way mathematics and storytelling connect, both literally and structurally. I too am a writer; I am an English teacher as well as a math teacher. To me, the idea of a mathematician writing novels makes total sense, and a consensus reality system based on enforced calendrical beliefs only intrigues rather than stymies me.
Ok, Kara, you sigh, but what did you think of the plot? You know, the story?
Oh, right, I’m writing a book review. Sorry! Where was I?
Ninefox Gambit is a hell of a story. Like, push aside all this discussion of mathematics and exposition and focus on the action. Lee wastes little time throwing Cheris into the deep end, and there is plenty of everything you want from an action story: sacrifice, conflict both internal and external, people questioning their most basic beliefs. The hexarchate is bad, y’all. It’s terrifyingly rigid, and while we don’t really learn much about the lives of ordinary, faction-less citizens like Cheris’ family, we learn enough that I know I wouldn’t want to live under hexarchate rule. It’s kind of a “are we the baddies?” situation, where you wonder if maybe the heretics are on to something….
You will have to wait for my review of book 2 (and I will read book 2 soon) to hear my specific thoughts on the ending of this one, because I don’t want to spoil it. But what happens with Cheris and Jedao … wow. It’s not that I didn’t see it coming (really, the foreshadowing is written in big, neon equations—did you not solve for the end?). No, I saw it coming. But the execution made me feel like the book ends with “Sympathy for the Devil” coming on the loudspeaker as the credits start rolling and the lights come up in the theatres. It made me think of the finale of the underrated, cancelled-too-soon Dark Matter. It made me think of all the right things to make me excited to read book 2, perfectly balancing the desire for a cliffhanger that sets up the sequel while still delivering a clear resolution to this story.
And this, I think, is what I hope you focus on when you read the reviews, mine included, and decide if Ninefox Gambit is for you. Don’t worry about the math, the lack of exposition, the strange society into which you’re catapulted. Do you like explosions? Do you like enemies you can sympathize with and allies you can hate? Do you think revenge is a dished best served centuries cold? Then this book is for you. Let your eyes glaze over when you need to, but when those guns start shooting or people start dying from a weapon of mass destruction, pull your awareness back to the page and absorb the story that Lee tells. Because ultimately, this is not a book about calculations or calendars. It’s about who should have the power to decide who lives or dies. And like any good hero’s journey, from literal superhero fiction to epic fantasy and SF, Ninefox Gambit warns us that the protagonist we so desperately want to look up to may not, in fact, be much of a hero at all.
So I guess I liked it.