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.

 

Objection and ME

I’m annoyed. Annoyed at myself mainly, but also annoyed at this condition I suffer from. (Last week I published a post about ME, which you can read here.)

As part of my MA in writing I set to writing a World War One novel. There were two main reasons for doing this. The first was that I have always had a love for history, and learning the lessons of the past to contextualise where we are today. As a teenager, I visited the battlefields of the Somme and Ypres. The graves and memorials set off something in me, something that I can only describe as a longing to understand “why”?

The second reason for writing the novel is that I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone of science fiction and fantasy and take advantage of the advice and guidance available on my Masters.

The more I researched the setting the more I saw how much Liverpool was linked to the war, and how much it was shaped by it. Everything around me held some link to the war. There were also several Liverpool regiments that fought in the bloodiest battlefields of the Great War. There were so many stories that needed to be told. I’d also watched a Sky one show called ‘Chickens’ about the conscientious objectors, those that refused to fight in the First World War, and it struck me that even a hundred years later these people were considered to be cowards. It infuriated me, and I decided to put a conscientious objector in my novel; the soldier’s brother.

Through drafting it became more and more obvious that both brothers had a story to tell, and through their contrasting stories would show the greater horror of The Great War.

I’m annoyed because last May (2016) I finished the full manuscript of the novel. (The first part was heavily edited as part of my portfolio work for my MA), and I was fairly happy to start sending it out to agents.

I’m annoyed because I then got very ill. I had the worst sinus infection I have ever had, and begun to feel like I did before I was first diagnosed with ME. I’ve only recently started to get back on my feet.

I’m annoyed because I’ve been sending it out to agents recently, but I’m worried that they will think I only wrote this novel to ride on the interest and popularity of the centenary of the First World War, which to me was merely a coincidence for the reasons I have mentioned earlier. I’m also worried that because it is already 2017 and a publishing cycle usually takes about two years (or so I believe?), that agents/publishers won’t take a risk because they think that it will miss the centenary of the end of the war, and the resultant interest.

I’m also annoyed because the film Hacksaw Ridge came out of left field and told the story of a ‘conchie’ in the second world war. It’s a different story, as conchies in WWI arguably had to go through a lot more, but it’s still a concern that people may feel this novel was written due to that. (I wish I could write 130,000 words that quickly!)

I hope that someone will pick it up. It was a very important story to write, and an important story to tell. I genuinely believe people will gain something from reading it. It would be a shame for it to sit in my drawer for the rest of my days.

If you know someone who may be interested, or are interested yourself, please get in contact. I will be more than happy to hear from you!

Writing with ME

If you’ve read my previous blog posts, you will know that I often get annoyed at myself for not blogging enough. Okay, I’m quite busy, but having a more regular blogging presence and readership is useful to show publishers. I’m fairly sure when that when I query agents they will look for me online, and it doesn’t look great when my last post on here is a couple of months old.

However, I don’t talk about it much because I don’t want to be ‘that guy’, but I suffer from a condition called CFS/ME. (Here’s an interesting link on the symptoms). As Friday was ME/CFS awareness day, I wanted to talk about how it affects my writing and explain why my blog isn’t as active as I would like.

One of the main ways of coping with ME is pacing. It’s something that I’ve done quite naturally since I was diagnosed with ME in 1999. I usually know my limits and when I can do something cognitive, or when I just need to sit and think. Since I referred myself to the local clinic last year after having a relapse, this has become even more important.

I think this is one of the reasons I naturally turned to writing. I’ve always loved stories, and I enjoy telling stories. A writer (I think it was Gav Thorpe) once said to me that a writer is always writing, whether they are putting pen to paper or not.

Even if I’m having a bad day, health wise, I can sit and think about my plot, character or setting. A lot of the planning gets done on these days, and it’s always good to plan out as much of your novel as possible before writing the actual prose. This allows me to feel quite productive, even if the physical novel or short story isn’t actually increasing in word count.

I would love one day to write a book about ME itself, but we’ll see.

Of course having mentioned this, you can perhaps understand why I don’t blog as much as I, or maybe you, would like. If I feel up to putting figurative pen to paper then I would much rather be writing the actual stories themselves.

However, I have a plan. Rather than writing one post on the day that it needs to be posted, I’m going to try and plan ahead and schedule posts. Here’s hoping I can actual fulfil this.

What I’d love to know is what kind of stuff you would like to read?

Feel free to ask me writing questions, and I will answer them as soon as possible.

Thanks for reading.

Oh, The Horror!

So I guess I can finally talk about this now that SFX #250 is out. About two issues ago (it might have been three, I can’t remember!) they advertised a competition to write a flash fiction piece of no more than 1,500 words. It was a competition to win a selection of signed Darren Shan Zom-b books, but they’re not really my thing. It did, however, catch my eye as a good incentive to try writing something different. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever written anything that fit within the horror genre before, especially not about zombies. 

To improve as a writer I’ve really been pushing myself to try writing in different styles and genres, so why not write a zombie story?

Sadly, I didn’t win the competition. I have no idea where I can, but I thought I’d wait until the issue was out until I posted it up for everyone to see. The title is a play on the saying ‘The reality is better than the dream’. I often have zombie related dreams (does anyone else also ‘suffer?’) and that was my direct inspiration for this piece. A nightmare may be bad, but I’m sure the reality would be far, far worse. Any way, here it is for your reading (dis)pleasure…


 

Reality is Worse than the Dream

by Michael J. Hollows

 

The wood cracked and splintered under my feet as I slipped again. The twin ends of the plank crumbled and fell as I chocked back a start of fear. I had thought I was safe up here, away from them, but I had been too confident, too complacent, too slow. Nothing was safe any more, they would always find me, no matter how much I ran.

I pushed myself up from my hands and knees and carefully propelled myself across, as the distant groaning grew louder.

Always the groaning. Why did they do that? They were dead, or undead, at least that’s what we’d been told. So why did they always groan? What kind of long-dead body function created that horrible keening noise that haunted my thoughts. Even when there were none of them around, I could still hear the sound, a phantom image pressing into my skull.

Jessica was calling to me from the window, screaming at me to hurry up. I reached for her hand, but I was too far away. I looked down at the ground and my vision swam, I never did like heights. This was a stupid idea.

‘Run, John. Run you fool!’

She never understood, I was too weak. With a grunt I pushed against the wooden boards and ran further, but I was too slow. With a sickening jolt, the boards cracked again and all resistance disappeared.

Time slowed interminably. I saw it all, even though it happened in an instant.

I was falling.

The wind, slow as it passed me, hummed in my ears and I expected any moment now to fall into the grasping, clawing hands of those groaning beasts. Jessica screamed again.

I tried to right myself, but the distance was too small and I hit the ground with a thump that knocked the wind from my lungs. My back burnt with pain and I felt like blacking out, but I had to get up, to run.

I could feel the broken, bloody finger nails about to claw at my skin and I shuddered, my back eliciting another jolt of pain.

Nothing happened.

Did I dare open my eyes? The moans were too distant, and as I opened my eyes and my vision returned to normal, pushing back the pain, I was alone.

‘Bloody, bastard zombies,’ I raged, daring to shout the words that everyone left unspoken. The movement made my head throb in pain and my vision swam again.  I looked up to the window and Jessica was gone, I hadn’t noticed the cessation of her screaming, my world was a sea of pain and terrible noises, one less didn’t make much difference.

The problem now, is that the shelter would presume me dead, and no one would come looking for me. Why bother? I would have to try and find my own way back.

It was her damned idea to climb over the roofs, even though I warned her. I may not be good with heights, but that wasn’t the point. In this part of town, after all the rain fall, the planks we’d placed were rotting. She was light, she could get across, and I wasn’t. Now I was here, lying on my arse, seconds away from doom.

I pushed myself up from the concrete and looked around for any signs of life, or unlife for that matter. I was in an alleyway between two buildings. Neither had any access, just a wall of impenetrable red-brown brick. To get anywhere I would have to leave the alley and go out into a more open area. The prospect didn’t exactly excite me. For the time being I was safe here, but I couldn’t stay in the alley indefinitely. For a start I would need food soon. That was what had brought us out on this insane foray. A foolish idea, we were pretty set as we were. We just got greedy.

I tested my legs to see how much mobility I had and everything hurt. Pain shot up my spine and down my legs, but I would be dead if I stayed here much longer. I looked around the alley to see if there was anything to use as a weapon, but couldn’t see anything. I searched under some boxes, wet and mulching, and pushed things around until an iron bar rolled free with a clang.

It wasn’t much, and it wasn’t my particular weapon of choice, but it would do in a bind and I was in a bind. I hefted it, testing the weight and took a few practice swings. The trick was to remove the head and I was fairly confident I could put enough force behind it.

I moved towards the end of the alley and it presented me with a view of the town. It had once been fairly prosperous, but now the houses and shops were boarded up, or ransacked. Family cars lay haphazardly, with their windows smashed and bodywork dented.

The undead milled around the ruined landscape, shuffling along with no sense of direction or purpose. They hadn’t noticed me yet, so I edged my way out, around the corner of the end terrace. I took careful footsteps, despite being dead, their hearing was ridiculously sensitive. I swear they could hear you breathing from a few metres away.

I took another step and an unnoticed can skittered away, clanging against an overturned bin.

Damn!

I had been too busy watching the zombies to pay attention to where I put my feet.

The nearest zombie, once a young man, wearing the remains of a black t-shirt and jeans, tilted its head in my direction and snarled as it saw me. I couldn’t think of it as a he anymore, that snarl was something feral, animal, dead.

It started shuffling in my direction, bringing with it that horrible groaning, keening sound, and the stench of putrefying flesh and decay. The smell made me want to gag and I dry-retched as it came closer.

Others spotted me as soon as the first one had and joined the attack.

The way to my right was clear, and I could flee, but I was rooted to the spot, terrified and indecisive. All I could do was bring up the iron bar and wave it threateningly at my attackers. They didn’t notice, and didn’t care, I was just food to them. That insatiable urge to snack on human flesh. What brought that about? And was it just humans?

I swung the iron bar at the first zombie, the one that snarled in me in that unfriendly way, and its head snapped back with a sickening crunch. It didn’t cry out or scream in pain, but kept stumbling on in my direction. I smacked it again, feeling encouraged by the weight of the bar. The blow finally removed its head. I expected blood to spurt from the wound, but it had none left.  The stench of decay grew stronger, and the body tottered where it stood, but the beast finally collapsed to the ground, really dead this time.

I swung and another skull cracked, and another, but still they came. With each attack I grew more tired, and they wouldn’t stop, nothing fazed them. They just had that urge to destroy. I should have run, but now I was pinned. I was trying to move, but they kept catching up with me. I was always too slow.

The wave of zombies lightened slightly as another fell at my feet. The putrid smell of necrotising flesh abated slightly and was replaced by a more familiar perfume. It was a heady scent of rose petals and honey. I had no idea why it reminded me of those things, but it always did.

I swung the iron bar in fury and another zombie collapsed. I turned and tried to run away, but on the backswing the bar got caught on something. I yanked and it stayed firmly stuck. I looked back at it and a pale hand, with signs of dying flesh, gripped it.

It had my weapon!

It was unexpected, but I could easily drop it and continue my escape. Something kept me there. This beast barely made a sound, compared to the others, only a faint mumble. I looked up into its face, a dead face, but one I knew well.

Jessica’s face.

Everything finally added up, with a sense of understanding that sucked the blood from my limbs with a feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach. She had been alone after I fell; had she tried to save me, or had she fled. Either way, she had become one of them. It made me feel sick.

Her grip on the bar was tight, a remainder of her will. She hadn’t yet fully turned.

But I turned and ran, leaving her with the bar, and with them. There was nothing I could do for her now except to run and to remember her.

Always running.

 

 


Well, thanks for reading.

As usual, feel free to comment.