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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Comedy you say? I’ve never heard of him!

Back to the writing! in this weeks class we had some great exercises orchestrated by the thoroughly interesting Peter Salmon. The aussie author used to work and teach at a writing retreat so he had plenty of great advice for us. I have to say though, a lot of what he said seemed to contradict what I have learnt over the last year. Mainly his idea that you just write, don’t outline, let your imagination guide you and then do the research and fact checking during the editing stage. I think the main thing I have to learn from this is that everyone crafts differently. At the Black Library weekender one of the key suggestions was to outline everything and so the last few weeks I have been writing rough outlines for the stories I’m writing. I think in the long run this will help me get a better handle on those particular stories. If I ever struggle for an idea I will just put pen to paper as Peter suggested and see what happens. 

The first exercise we did involved writing down something we loved. Then write down a gender and age. Pass the thing you love to your left and the gender to the right. Thusly I ended up with a 32 year old male who loved technology. My immediate response was ‘I can work with this.’ We were then given some time (I can’t recall how much!) to start a story with this character. The following, as yet, untitled piece is what resulted:

 

 

David looked vacantly into thin air as the phone rang incessantly on the hook. He wouldn’t answer it. It would be the same old rubbish as before and the time before that. They would get bored and hang up eventually. Then only the really struggling ones would come down and see him, trying to drag him away from his task.

He looked at the phone, disgusted as the imperial march played its last beat. His colleagues often wondered how he’d managed to set the ringtone. The force works in mysterious ways.

David had thought about disconnecting it, but someone would notice. He didn’t fancy getting in trouble again. Forget that.

He pushed the phone to one side and covered it in papers, anything to keep it away. Now hidden, out of hands-reach and twin monitors he carried on his work. The important work that is.

One once screen the black and green of a Unix coding screen, the other halfway through a raid, his elfin princess resplendent in kicking butt.

Meaty fists hammered the keyboard as he worked away. Deftly inserting code with the left, repeatedly tapping the ‘1’ key with the right. Who said men couldn’t multitask?

A message pop-up popped-up annoyingly over is game window and he brushed it away with a click. Some other idiot on floor five, who couldn’t open their disk drive and probably thought the tab key was a drinks ordering facility. He once met someone who was scared of the space bar.

‘forward-slash pizza,’ he chuckled to himself, second chin wobbling in sympathetic irony.

Over the rumble of his laughter he heard the door to the office open and close with a click, but his dismissed it as he had the pop-up, with a lazy sweep of the hand. 

 

You can probably see the influences already, but I had in my mind this IT guy that was fairly disgruntled and felt he had a higher calling. It then turned into a sort of comedy piece. I’ve never written comedy before, and as Peter suggested we try to go outside our comfort zone, I thought ‘why not?’ I don’t know if its any good, or if people would find it funny, but I have an idea of where I want to go with this and I think I will write it at some point. It may change drastically from what you see here, as it is, in its first draft. It’ll be a kind of spoof. That’s all I’m saying. 

The next task was to give this character, well, a character. Peter asked us a series of questions about the character and we had to write the first thing that came to mind. He didn’t ask us to share the answers and I don’t think I will as I want to write him first without giving too much away. But if people ask nicely I may change my mind. 

The third and final task was to write down a list of 50 things about a person close to you. I chose my mum and as such chose not to read any of it out. (I will read out something in class soon, promise!)

And that was that for the day. 

I’m off to carry on writing about a Far World, intersected with lunch and probably staring out of the window. Hopefully I will be able to tell you more about that soon! (its a great view) I mean the story, silly! 

Thanks for reading.

Keep reading, keep writing.