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Wrong Train, Right Time ([personal profile] wrongtrainrighttime) wrote2017-06-10 01:43 pm

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Lee, Yoon Ha. Ninefox Gambit. Solaris Books, 2016. eBook.

Oh man. Oh, man. I read Ninefox Gambit a few days ago and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. That's going to make reviewing it a tad hard, because my thoughts are in a jumble, but I want to get some notes down before the sequel comes out (next week! Gah!).

Let's start with a summary. That's always a good place. Ninefox Gambit is the story of Kel Cheris, disgraced soldier, who is given the chance to redeem herself by retaking the fallen and impenetrable Fortress of Scattered Needles. Her solution is an unorthodox as the actions that landed her in hot water in the first place: revive the ghost of Shuos Jedao, an famously unbeatable and infamously insane general from 400 years ago, and use his expertise to break the Fortress. Can they actually retake the Fortress before the entire empire falls? How much can Cheris trust Jedao, who's infamous for destroying his own army without provocation? And will Cheris get out of this siege with her sanity and self intact?

Lee's language is amazing. His writing is stately and poetic, gorgeous and gripping, and utterly ruthless in its choice of detail, dialogue, and imagery. I am deeply envious. I am also deeply envious of his world-building. The premise of tech that works on consensus reality and also handwavy space magic seems like a weird combination that oughtn't work, but it all hangs together beautifully, and the conceit of the high calendar leads to interesting conflicts. It's a literalization of that common sci-fi trope of clashing ideologies -- all expressed through calendars, calculations, and numbers.

I love the way Lee's world world and the terms of its existence just grab readers by the throat. We get a long look at the warfare and brutality which govern a society that lives and dies by consensus reality, and Lee deftly walks the line between the horrors that Cheris is accustomed to and the horrors that she isn't, leaving readers to fill in the fridge horror gaps. (See also: every description of what it's like in the black cradle. Yikes.) And it's all just so entertainingly WEIRD. I love that it's more about the cool concept and coherence than technological feasibility. In the end, all science-fiction is a fantasy anyway; the question is just how believable it is, and Lee does an excellent job of making his strange world hang together.

Also, off-the-wall world-building aside, this novel is, at its core, a war novel. It's a space opera, it's a whole dang lot of ships doing awful things. And for all his beautiful prose, Lee doesn't shy away from the horror of war and the terrible things that people do to each other in the name of victory, in the name of what they believe, in the name of survival. It's an ugly and brutal novel written with a perspective that enjoys the toy soldier approach to spinning up battles from thin air while also acknowledging that war is not glamorous, it's not worthy of worship, it's an ugly and cruel enterprise that leaves no one unscathed.

Lee also has a ton of excellent character work. Cheris and Jedao are obviously the center point, as they're the protagonists. I love the conceit of their characters: Cheris out of her depth and desperate to find a way back to safety and normal life, and Jedao the made genius trapped in her soul. It's such an awful situation to think about -- on both ends! -- and the contrast between their personalities makes for some interesting interactions as they make their way toward equilibrium. Because, while Jedao is absolutely untrustworthy, Cheris can't afford to not trust him, either. Her struggle to balance her reflexive obedience with her desire to survive, her blind love for her faction and regard for the soldiers under her command, all of it adds up to a compelling portrait.

I would be lying if I said that Jedao wasn't my favorite, though. Give me a charming liar and I'll show you a character I can't set aside. What insight we get into his motives and personality, all the secret history lost after 400 years, is heartbreaking as well. And oh, that ending! I am SO excited for the sequel because I want to see the fallout from it. I just read an interview about the upcoming sequel that states that Cheris and Jedao will become the antagonist and I'm so excited for that, even as I'm sad we won't be in their POV anymore.

So basically, endless squeals of joy, and now I've gotten this out of my system so I can get even more hype for the sequel. Next week can't come soon enough.

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