RogerBW's Blog

Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee 22 May 2017

2016 Hugo-nominated science fiction. In a world defined by belief, Kel Cheris won a battle against heretics… by using a heretical technique. That makes her the perfect leader for a really important mission.

This is a book that has it all: strange sufficiently advanced technology, real people, lush writing, a compelling plot. The reader is thrown into a battle at the start of the book, and has to pick up quickly what's going on and how it works; like any good supertech, it has its own rules, and indeed they're core to the plot.

Naraucher liked parades. Everything could go wrong, but when you got down to it, no one was going to die. Except that one time with the combustible pigeon, and that had been a tasteless prank.

If enough people believe the right way, strange things can happen as a result. The hexarchy (it used to be a heptarchy, we don't like to talk about that) has constructed a calendar to optimise those results and requires its subjects to observe it, but this means it's involved in endless wars against calendrical heretics, since any disgruntled group has to deviate from that calendar to have any chance of success. Of course, if the heresy is strong enough those special results (you could call them "magic", but the book doesn't) don't work any more, so the soldier-caste Kel are trained in less-powerful "invariant" weapons as well as the calendrical "exotics".

"We're quite a pair, aren't we?" Isaure said as she continued to draw a map with her toe. It was surprisingly good, especially if you ignored the streaky marks left by skull splinters and the accompanying shreds of brain.

Lee throws around gorgeous words and phrases, such as "bannermoth" and "carrion glass" and "threshold winnower", and expects you to keep up. There's context enough, but those not used to the puzzle-solving mode of reading SF may find it hard work.

And that meant the Kel Arsenal. Catastrophe guns, abrogation sieves, small shining boxes that held the deaths of worlds. During graduation from Kel Academy Prime, she had seen such a box, disarmed, dented, and ordinary in appearance. The speaker said it had annihilated the populations of three planets. Small planets, but still. It was remarkable how much death could be held in a small box.

This book often reminded me of Ancillary Justice: explanation dribbled in rather than foregrounded, constant progress if not constant action, and people who try to do the right thing though they're in the service of a polity that on balance seems like a pretty horrible place to live even if you're one of the people on top.

"I'm bored," Mikodez said, "and if I don't spend this money, one of my subordinates will put it into something wholesome, like algorithmic threat identification." He cultivated a reputation for being erratic for occasions like this.

"All right, all right, I'll put in the authorizations on my end," Kujen said. "You think you have paperwork, you should see mine."

You think I don't? Mikodez thought, but he kept his expression bland. Kujen's security wasn't nearly as up-to-date as he thought it was.

And I haven't even mentioned Jedao. Cheris's mission is to reclaim the Fortress of Scattered Needles from the heresy into which it's fallen (it's an anchor point for calendrical orthodoxy), and the weapon she's chosen to do it, apart from the war fleet, is the ghost of the hexarchy's greatest general, Shuos Jedao… who famously went mad and slaughtered his own staff. He's been kept suspended since, brought out when there's a really hard military problem to be solved, and now he's going to be Cheris's chief advisor. But any bit of advice he gives might be tactical brilliance, or might be setting up some insane long game of his own…

Colonel Ragath had reported that the Radiant Ward was a wasteland no one wanted to enter except some corpse calligraphers bent on memorializing the event.

The only real flaws for me were some slightly turgid explanation by flashback near the end, and the fact that this isn't a complete story. In spite of those problems, this is a lovely book, one that I enjoyed and recommend wholeheartedly.

To be followed by Raven Stratagem. This work was nominated for the 2017 Hugo Awards.

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