One of my favorite fiction tropes is the master strategist – the military general who is a super genius and has all the answers. It is always fun (probably because I am projecting) to see someone trounce everyone around them just using their mind and a good plan. Examples of this include the famous Thrawn from Star Wars (who has a new book this month), Artemis Fowl from the series named after him, and of course the popular Ender from Ender’s Game. The Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee, brings a new entry to the category with Shuos Jedao. Jedao, and his handler Cheris, need to tackle an impossible military challenge in a fascinating and confusing world. So if you like the idea of a tactical master raised from undeath, and chained to a handler, to be used as a weapon in a galaxy spanning conflict where a person’s spirituality and beliefs bend reality around them – you might want to read on.
Before we get any further, I want it understood that Ninefox Gambit is confusing as all hell (intentionally). If you are uncomfortable not knowing what is going on, or don’t like it when authors don’t explain every detail of their world – you will not like this book. Yoon explains only the barest minimum of his world to the point where you will understand that something important is happening, but you often won’t know what it is or why it’s important. However, in this instance – it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The book is exciting, and even when you have no idea what is going on the tone is masterfully manipulated so that you get excited anyway. Yoon uses an immense amount of terminology that you have to work hard to understand – which can be frustrating, in particular at the beginning of the book. As you immerse yourself in the story, you will start to grasp Yoon’s terminology and start to understand the conflict running through the story and what is at stake.
But what is the story? That’s a little complicated. We follow the POV of Kel Cheris, a officer in the Kel army. The empire in Ninefox is separated into six subgroups, each responsible for different parts of running it, and each with different magic granted to them by their membership. The Kels are the army and gain power through battle formations. Saying that last sentence aloud made me feel like it sounds really dumb out of context, but trust me when I say while it’s hard to explain the book it’s really cool when you are in it. The empire has a slight internal problem, one of their impenetrable ‘calendrical’ fortresses has been penetrated. Rebels have taken over what is essentially a religious radio tower that stabilizes and reinforces the empires beliefs to the surrounding areas. This is bad because a rebel set of beliefs in a key node such as this is essentially causing reality, and the empire’s rule, to break down around it – and it’s spreading. To address this issue, the empire picks a group of candidates to come up with solutions to deal with the issue using the weapon of their choice. Cheris, our main character, chooses to resurrect the empire’s best general (who went insane during his final battle) and see if she can use him as a consultant on how to tackle this problem.
As I have said, the plot and world can be confusing. It is hard to comment on the quality of the world building. On the one hand there are so many cool ideas and technologies in Yoon’s book that I was fascinated with my surroundings. On the other hand, the world often feels like Yoon is just throwing out phrases and ideas with little explanation and planning. On the … third ….hand, I will say that I definitely love the characters. Cheris, Jedao, and their support cast bring a lot of life, energy, and excitement to the book. I was heavily invested in their stories and lives, something that helped stay immersed in the book when I had no idea what was going on. The plot starts out confusing, ends with some gained clarity, but remains awesome from beginning to end. In particular the ending of the book did an incredible job setting up the sequel and has left me champing at the bit to find out what I can be confused about next.
The Ninefox Gambit is weird, quirky, and a wild ride that I recommend to almost everyone. If you can let go of the reigns, the book will take you on a wild ride with stunning sites and great characters. In the realm of badass tacticians, Jedao is up there with the best and I cannot wait to see what he and Cheris (who is amazing in her own right) have in store for us next. There is a reason this book made the Hugo ballot this year, and it is much deserved. Go check out the Ninefox Gambit as soon as you can.
Rating: Ninefox Gambit – 9.0/10