book reviews by Althea

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee ****

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Ninefox Gambit
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Intelligent, challenging Military SF/Space Opera.

I’d read a few of Yoon Ha Lee’s short stories, so had every expectation of liking this debut novel – and I was not disappointed. (I’m fairly certain that at least one of the short stories is set in this universe, although I can’t quite place which one.)

Captain Kel Cheris is a respected soldier in an extremely regimented, authoritarian and militaristic society. Her talent for mathematics – part of the underpinnings of how this world works – distinguishes her. But when she achieves a stunning victory by a not-by-the-book strategy, her unconventionality may be the end of her career. However, she proposes a shockingly bold plan to her superiors: she asks them to let her try to re-take a contested fortress by letting her team up with one of her empire’s greatest generals and strategists of all time. The problem? General Shuos Jedao is imprisoned, accused of treason, and is possibly insane.

On the face of it, that plot setup sounds fairly straightforward. And on one level, it is. The military tactics and action progress in an exciting manner, with good character development and a really interesting dynamic between Cheris and Jedao.

However, the setting of the book has a whole other level, which is the nature of this world’s reality. Everything here is ‘calendrical,’ meaning in the context of this book that it works based on advanced mathematical formulae. A calendar is like a computer program that determines the rules, physics, and nature of the surrounding reality. This is why this society is so strictly regimented: violating the calendar (heresy) can have severe, fabric-of-reality-affecting repercussions. Competing ‘calendars’ cannot be tolerated, as they cause something like ‘bit rot’ at the edges…

Of course, it’s quite questionable as to whether of not Kel Cheris’ Hexarchate is really the necessity it presents itself as. There seem to be plenty of heretics who disagree. (Like Ann Leckie’s ‘Ancillary Justice,’ this is very much a “from within the Evil Empire” tale.)

The nature of this universe’s physics is in keeping with some of Yoon Ha Lee’s short works, in which, for example, art, or language, can affect the physical reality. Here, it’s mathematics. It’s still undeniably challenging for the reader to wrap one’s head around at first. For myself, I found that everything went a lot more smoothly after I realized that, as physical as this world seems in its depiction, the way everything works makes perfect sense (and seems entirely possible) if you think of it as happening inside a computer-generated virtual reality.

Many thanks to Solaris and Netgalley for the chance to read this excellent book. As always, my opinions are solely my own

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