I read this a year ago, very nearly to the day. It seems so strange to try and look back on that time, because I was so different and my tastes weren’t what they are now, but I’m sure it gave me a ton of inspiration for my own novel, and really pushed me to keep going with it. Well, a year down the line, I’m a hundred pages in (to my own sci-fi, that is!) and still going strong, and the sequel to Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem, has just been released. I’ve waited a long time for it, so I’m not about to just dive in without giving myself a refresher of the first in the trilogy beforehand. I make a point of the fact that I never read books twice, but Ninefox is among my all time favourites so, for once, it’s a pleasure to get lost in it once again. Because I may have changed a lot in the last year, but what certainly hasn’t changed is how much I love this book.
In a distant and hierarchical future of calendrical warfare and exotic technologies, the ruling Hexarchate loses one of its central fortresses to a heretic takeover. The Liozh, the abolished seventh faction of the old Heptarchate, seek to reinstate themselves, and are willing to kill thousands in the process by purging the fortress. When Captain Kel Cheris of Heron Company is selected to take down the heretics and is given full access to the Kel arsenal, she decides on the undead tactician General Shuos Jedao as her weapon of choice. She bonds with the ghost of the man who massacred two armies, one of them his own, and sets out to take back the Fortress of Scattered Needles. But will she succeed, or will Jedao drive her insane before she does and get them both killed?
I think this may have happened before with my reviews, but this is another book where the ‘Good’ section will be a lot shorter than the ‘To be Improved’ one, for one simple reason. When you have a book that is consistently amazing throughout, it’s very hard to narrow down your praises, so you’re sort of just left saying “It’s all great, simple as”, which is a lot less complicated than, for instance, describing a whole scene in depth because that was the only silver lining you could find in an otherwise mediocre novel. Consequently, any criticisms are super specific so, even though they warrant a lot more explanation, just because there are more words doesn’t mean there are more things wrong with the book. Capeesh? Case in point: All of the imagery, description, names of the ships and weapons, it’s superb, it really is. See? That sentence is a lot shorter than if there was only one example of gorgeous imagery and I went into it in greater detail, but I can’t say anything more! It’s just so well-written. I’m going to have to get specific here, so let’s just list some things. The imagination that has been required to come up with all the weapons, ships, factions and imagery throughout is just staggering. Boxmoth troop transports, Cindermoths equipped with Erasure Guns and Dire Cannons, Kel Ashhawks, Threshold Winnowers, it goes on and on. And they never start to get boring, that’s the main thing. So much new weaponry is introduced that drastically turns the tide of battle (and that’s really what this book is about on the whole, so it just adds to the gritty feel) but none of it done cheaply in dull ex machina fashion. Instead, there are genuine surprises which grip you and keep your fingers flicking the pages, moments of terror that make you hold your breath, conversational gambits (pun intended, as I’m sure it was intended in the book) that make you grin in satisfaction, laugh out loud or shudder, and, of course, a whole host of explosive space battles and infantry skirmishes complete with all the aforementioned cannons, guns and winnowers, along with many others. As well as all this, the lore behind the story is established incredibly cunningly. When I first read it, sure, I was incredibly confused by all the “calendar” stuff, as none of it is explicitly explained; but, and this is something many people cite as a reason to avoid sci-fi as it is too easy a genre to write to be awarded any credit, it doesn’t need to be explained, because it is shown not told. That’s the joy of reading Ninefox Gambit and unravelling the mystery for yourself. On top of that, many questions are left unanswered and I am very much looking forward to having them answered in the sequel, as well as having new ones raised to be reserved for, I hope, an eventual finale to a trilogy.
To be Improved:
Yoon Ha Lee has clearly chosen some things that very much resemble but not quite enough for copyright infringement multiple items and characters from Bungie’s Destiny and not even bothered to change the names. Servitors are enemies that look very similar to the small drones of the same name described in the book, and serve (pun intended) much the same function. Exotics, even though this is already an English word, I guess, are the powerful weapons you unlock at high levels in Destiny, and they’re the ones used in the book, too. The Kel are a race in Destiny, and a faction in the book. Look, I’m all for a bit of homage, but when you mention all three of these things in the first page and the reason I buy your book is because of how much it initially reminds me of one of my favourite video games, you’ve cheated a bit. But that’s not to say that’s the reason I carried on reading. Another slight issue is that as you go through the book there are perhaps a few too many characters to keep up with. When you also consider the fact they all start with the name of their faction (Kel Cheris, Kel Nerevor, Kel Diaia, etc) it becomes frustrating to try and keep track of them all, especially seeing as they all seem to be equally important at various points in the narrative. Although maybe that’s the point, as the main character herself finds herself unable to keep track of her subordinates due to her inexperience in her newly-brevetted rank, so I’ll overlook it. And on top all this, there are some VERY convoluted plot points that are never really followed up. If they are eventually explained, there’s too many to keep track of so whenever a “She dreaded to think what was going to happen” moment crops up, the reveal comes so much further on in the book and there are so many of these moments that it all gets a bit lost and muddled. But now we come to my biggest complaint, albeit one that will hopefully have been ironed out by the time there’s a second printing of this book. It’s now incredibly annoying when this happens, and yes, it’s an editing rather than an authorial problem, and yes, before I picked the book up this time around I’d forgotten about it which means it can’t have been too much of a problem the last time I read it, but Ninefox Gambit is one of if not the only book I’ve read where whole paragraphs (short ones, mind, but paragraphs all the same) are accidentally used twice, in completely different contexts. It’s immersion-shattering, it’s tedious, it’s just a mistake that shouldn’t even be made if you do any sort of proofreading before publication. Rather unfortunate, but there it is. No fault of the author, of course, as switching around paragraphs to places they work best is a must during one’s own editing sessions, but I try to give reviews of books as a whole rather than just the skill of the author. If a movie was amazingly done but they used a line of dialogue or a specific shot more than once (Michael Bay, take notes) you’d definitely notice, so I try and critique books in a similar vein. Other than that, I have no more criticisms to offer regarding the actual content of the novel, the description, the plot and the way it’s all done. I did mention that this was in my top five favourite books of all time, right?
Ninefox Gambit is incredible. I love military science fiction (like Joe Haldeman’s Forever War), and this is a brilliant blend of rip-roaring battle sequences punctuated by intricate instances of political intrigue and backdoor influences. I say instances because all too often (in novels like Dune, for example) authors choose to focus drastically more attention on the politics of it all at the cost of anything exciting. Probably need to change that attitude if I’m planning on getting through Frank Herbert’s 400 or so pages at some point in the near future, but that’s just my opinion. Ha Lee does decidedly the opposite, and does it very well indeed, adding little pieces of what’s going on between the characters pulling the strings, adding some nice background and lore to the story, but mainly focusing on the hard realities of space warfare, the thing you can really bite on as you read, which is what catapults the narrative forward, keeps those pages turning, and, above all, is fundamentally, grin-inducingly fun. It makes for an awesome and compelling read, and one which, like I said, sits in my top five. Bring on the sequel.