Lee, Yoon Ha: (01) Ninefox Gambit



I was talking about Yoon Ha Lee’s first novel, Ninefox Gambit, at Arisia today, which gives me a handy way of writing it up: just try to recreate what I said.

It took me forever to read this book because it had such a reputation of being difficult to start, and as you may have inferred from the status of this booklog, I haven’t had a lot of time or brain for difficult novels lately. But I finally sat down with it, and honestly I don’t think it’s nearly as hard as people say—if you’re approaching it with SF reading protocols. That is to say: if you’re comfortable with understanding the effect and emotional importance of a technobabble in an SF work, without necessarily being able to envision the nuts and bolts of said technobabble, then you’ll do just fine with Ninefox. And it has two awesome central ideas.

The first is that it’s set in an empire that brutally enforces a high calendar, which is a consensus reality, because particular calendars enable particular exotic technologies—magic, effectively. In other words, this empire is maintained by modes of thought, only instead of the kyriarchy, it’s the high calendar.

The second is that our principal POV character, Cheris, is a soldier who becomes host to an undead general, “Shuos Jedao, the Immolation Fox: genius, arch-traitor, and mass murderer.” I love the way this is implemented. She and Jedao talk inside her head, but they can’t read each other’s thoughts, and he can’t speak to others or control her body; but when Cheris looks in the mirror, she sees him. And then there’s her shadow:

The shadow wouldn’t have looked like her own even if it weren’t for the eyes. Not only were proportions wrong, there were nine eyes, unblinking and candle-yellow, arranged in three triangles. As she watched, the eyes moved to form a perfect line bisecting the shadow.

I just think that image is amazing.

There’s a lot else of interest about this book: it has great robots; it uses short hops into the viewpoints of secondary characters to good effect; and it has a killer ending. But really, the takeway from this entry is that if those two main things sound interesting, don’t let the book’s reputation stop you.

Nb.: this book would read considerably differently if one had read a related short story first, as it’s from Jedao’s POV; I’m not sure I have an opinion about that, I just wanted to note it for the record. (The story is “The Battle of Candle Arc” at Clarkesworld.)

Disclaimer: Yoon is a friend.

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