Review of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Review of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

I bought Ninefox Gambit late last year because it was on sale. There were good things said about it and, more importantly, the audiobook version was only a few dollars more. So I started to listen during my long commute home but by New Year’s I had stopped. This Hugo Challenge forces me to give it another chance.

There were two main reasons why I stopped. The first being that the holidays are always filled with distractions. The other, that this book isn’t of my normal, intermediate reading level (#humblebrag). It’s considerably more challenging.

Ninefox demands your attention. It forces you to listen to the context in a way that most writing never attempts. You’ve heard of the “show-don’t-tell” policy amongst writers and storytellers? There is barely any telling going on in this book. And honestly, it could use some more showing. I reread certain passages multiple times and still didn’t quite understand what had happened.

This is mostly caused by the weapons that author Yoon Ha Lee created. They’re generally known as “exotics” and they rely heavily on math and the calendar that is currently in use (we’ll get to that). But it’s basically magic. The characters may talk like they know what happens, but we never do. We aren’t given the information as to how these swirling, deadly effects actually work. That being said, we don’t need to know. Lee respects his readers to know — from the context — what to expect when this weapon is fired. The conflict is set up and the guns are fired. Just sit back and enjoy the show.

The story focuses around captain Kel Cheris and general Shuos Jedao. (Kel and Shuos are names of their respective factions. Like Gryffindor or Slytherin but not as strictly limited to one faction exclusively.) Their story line is simple: Although probably not the best fit, these two must team up in order to solve the problem. Their interactions, however, are a better story. They’re near opposites and their dichotomy is fascinating to watch ebb and flow.

I’ve decided at the end of this challenge that I’m going to create a Best Character Award. Both characters are up for this award already. But I know that Jedao has won this round. He’s ruthless and cunning with a skill to blatantly surpass boundaries to get what he wants. Cheris isn’t a poorly written character, she just spends a lot of time asking the questions that the reader is anticipating. Jedao is 100% great, Cheris is somewhere around 84%.

I’ve decided at the end of this challenge that I’m going to create a Best Character Award. Both characters are up for this award already. But I know that Jedao has won this round. He’s ruthless and cunning with a skill to blatantly surpass boundaries to get what he wants. Cheris isn’t a poorly written character, she just spends a lot of time asking the questions that the reader is anticipating. Jedao is 100% great, Cheris is somewhere around 84%.

Now, about that calendar I talked about. Our calendar is defined by holidays. Some people celebrate different holidays. But what if enough people didn’t celebrate any of the same holidays we do? Or what if they even chose to have eight days in a week? It becomes heresy. And this point here is the basis of the most extreme — yet novel — idea in the entirety of the book. When people don’t follow the same calendar, it causes strife for the rulers of the nation or, in this case, the empire. And not only that, many of the exotic weapons that Lee created are only effective within the parameters of certain calendars. Those people on that planet don’t believe in your 12-month year? Then your projectile laser cheese graters aren’t gonna do much, pal. Sorry.

This could’ve been the worst part of the book. When the created system requires that the people believe in a certain calendar for certain weapons to work, it could possibly be seen as a bit too convenient for anything to work. Possibly some dues ex machina?  But, as for me, I don’t see it that way. Lee builds reasons as to why the people believe one way or another, changing or not changing based on people actions. It is all handled with enough forethought that it doesn’t feel cheap.

It is a novel idea, really. Weapons and calendars and weaponized math? That’s surely like nothing you’ve read before. In fact, it may be so much of a unique concept that it might have single-handedly earned the Best Novel nomination. Don’t take that as a back-handed compliment. The rest of this book is good. At worst, you might be able to simply call it solid. I hope you don’t.

For some reason, though I can’t give it the full five-star rating. I enjoyed it and I’ve found myself enjoying its ideas more in the days after finishing it. But I think the overall main storyline is a bit too basic for me to fall for its inventions completely. Therefore I give it 4.5 stars out of 5. (Rounded up to 5 on GoodReads.) I recommend it to anyone who wants a book with high-minded ideas and a minor reading challenge. Its sequel, Raven Stratagem, will be released on June 13, 2017. It’s not on the top of my list but I’m very interested to see what more Lee has in store.

 

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