Review – Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

I am trying to work my way through the Arthur C. Clarke award and Hugo award Shortlists before their award ceremonies at the end of this month and the start of next respectively. It’s quite a task, and I’m already a little bit behind. I will probably never get through them in time, which is a shame as I am entitled to vote for the Hugo, but it is a noble effort.

As I’m trying to do some reviews, both to get my mind in PhD setting, and to provide some content for this website, the best thing to do is review these as I go along.

I’m sure I will return to posting about writing and some writing advice soon.

For this week I thought I would talk about Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, published by Solaris. I’ve seen this posted everywhere on social media, and it has quite a striking cover, so I’ve wanted to read it for a while. It was handy that it happens to be on both the Arthur C. Clarke and Hugo shortlists.

The first thing I noticed is that the opening is quite clumsy and there is a lot of exposition, trying to bring the reader into the world immediately. Exposition is a necessary and often important trope of science fiction, but it has to be done properly. It felt like reading a history text book for this particular world. I almost didn’t continue, it was that hard going. However, I’m someone that has to get to the end of the story whether I want to or not. My friend, and fellow writer, Reece has a 50 page limit where if it doesn’t catch him within the first 50 pages he moves onto another book. I’m 99% sure he would not have read past 50 pages for Ninefox Gambit, but I’m kinda happy I did.

While the description is nice the sense of being in the midst of a battle isn’t there. The character has time to stop and tell us about the different calendars and formations that their people use, but it makes it feel like there is a real disconnect between the action and description. There’s a lot of tell, but not so much show. The only description we get of the enemy that they’re fighting is that they are like the main character’s species, but alien. Not all that helpful, or really mental-image forming. It’s clear it’s a well thought-out world, but the technique isn’t great for getting that across to the reader.

I found the rhythm of the prose a bit jarring as almost every sentence had an interjection. “Nothing he kept in the office would intimidate Kujen, anyway, not the paintings of ninefoxes with their staring tails, not the lack of visible weapons, or the pattern-stones board with its halfway game, or the randomly selected images of still life.” I understand trying to have a narrative voice, but this isn’t one that’s particularly easy to enjoy. However, once the exposition is largely out of the way we start to see more of the character.

It could have started from chapter 3 as this is where the character and setting really start to come out and blossom into something that the reader can engage with. There is still some info-dumping, in an almost autistic way (I’m not sure how the reader is supposed to remember all the different signifiers), but it is much more from the character’s point of view, more natural, and the prose feels tighter for it.

In the middle of chapters there are often letters that the heretics send to one another. This are a nice touch, and it’s a decent framing device. It serves to give a lot more context than to the world that the main character is fighting against, and why they are doing what they’re doing. .

The relationship between Cheris (the main character) and Jadeo is by far the most interesting part of the novel, and really what this novel is about. It’s when the main character starts to really become a character rather than just a blank mathematical all-obeying nothing. While the dialogue can be a bit too much at times – chapters are often dialogue between the two without much else happening – it helps place the two characters, or rather give them character.

The fighting bits once the setting finally gets to the fortress (there’s a long and rather unnecessary setup) are good. They portray the common soldier quite well, and they often have more actual character traits, and are more engaging than the main character herself. These sections are much more compelling, and as a reader I want to follow the soldiers and what happens to them. They give a truer understanding of the world. It made me think of this quote by Orson Scott Card:

“Anyone who knows anything about the military will tell you, the commanders of ships and armies don’t have many interesting adventures. They’re mostly […] sending out the orders to the people who do the physically dangerous work.” (Scott Card, 1990)

While I don’t always agree with this point, I think it’s relevant here.

I like the use of flashbacks towards the end of the novel. Without trying to give too much away there is a clever device to it, and they really start to show you Jadeo’s character. The only downside is that it shows again how blank the main character, Cheris. It’s partly the nature of the fact that she belongs to the Kel clan, which as far as I can tell are brainwashed soldier class. However she does have independent thought, but none of it is compelling enough to really care about her.

Then again, the more you read this novel the more it’s about Jadeo than Cheris.

Overall, the novel is an interesting critique of a fascist regime (or perhaps of the author’s Korean background – I don’t know enough about Korea to say for sure), against democracy, but when the regime is so mind bogglingly complex that you don’t understand it, it’s hard to find empathy. (How on earth can technology be based on a Calendar system?!) I’m fairly mathematical, to the point that I can teach it, but this idea just seems bizarre and frustratingly complex.

You may think that I didn’t like the novel, and sure there is a lot that could be improved. I did spend up to page 300 not wanting to read the sequel, but then I read the ending, and I can’t help but feel that this is a set up for a much more interesting sequel.

Perhaps the author has got over the problems of technique and style in the second book, and the clever world and setting will come to the fore. I will be picking it up at some point.

Thanks for reading.

Bibliography

Lee, Y.H. (2016) Ninefox Gambit. Solaris Books.

Scott Card, O (1990) How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. Writer’s Digest Books.

 

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