Thoughts: Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Yes, it has been forever. Yes, as always, I regret it. Such a backlog.

This one needs a big embarrassing disclaimer: I think I might be a little bit jealous! As an amateur writer, sometimes when I read a good book it’ll dishearten me, because I’m a self-centred human being, and instead of happily appreciating someone else’s skills I’m always in the back of my head brooding about mine (or the lack thereof). So I’m going to be careful about my few small criticisms of this book, and make sure they aren’t coming from that resentful place. I am guilty of backhandedly complimenting things I love but could never approach. Ninefox tripped that wire for me quite hard. I don’t know exactly what it was, but something did. I kind of thought I was over the irrational envy after reading Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven without wanting to cut off my fingers and break my keyboard, but nope.

Spoilers spoilers spoilers.

That said, I think most of my feelings are fair. Ninefox Gambit is one of those books I thought was really good and really ambitious, and therefore have held to a higher standard than some other books I’ve read and enjoyed in an uncomplicated fashion.

It’s military sci fi, which is absolutely not my usual thing, and it’s very “in media res” about every facet of the world and story, in a way that some people love and some people hate and I’ll tolerate happily to an extent before I get frustrated. Ninefox Gambit rubbed right up against my limit – I only started feeling at home in the world around page 80. Up until then I found it hard to keep up with what was going on, what was important, what was flavour. I’ve had similarly difficult beginnings before with sci fi, including Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, but whereas the beginning of The Left Hand of Darkness is slow and spacious, Ninefox Gambit opens in the middle of a battle. Part of me wonders if I’d have much more of an idea of what was happening if I reread it now. Yoon Ha Lee has a rather lovely writing style, full of interesting imagery and poetic turns of phrase, but this works against him sometimes (or at least against me the reader) when it becomes unclear what’s metaphor and what’s real.

In some ways this is because of how great his worldbuilding is – none of it’s lazy, all of it’s original and well thought out. It’s because it’s so alien that I found it hard to know whether something was actually happening. Did Cheris really eat glass or was that just poetic licence? Did it really pierce her heart at one point? Shrug! Genuinely unsure!

Lee’s weapons in particular are gruesomely creative (or at least metaphorically gruesome – again, I have no idea) and all of his battle scenes were just incomprehensible to me. Are people dead? Really, is that glass? What is the light weapon? The immersive nature of the story doesn’t help, as nothing is ever explained, ever. Ever. Maybe this is intended, but even if it was, it didn’t do it for me.

A similar kind of complaint is that I felt as though the beginning was… too tight? Oh god. Let me try to talk my way out of this one. I’m hypersensitive to beginnings because beginnings are a huge weak point in my own (again, amateur) work. I’m always looking for tips. And I think there wasn’t quite enough to hold onto in the beginning. Lee usually writes short fiction (which I hope to one day read), which has to be as lean as possible, and you can tell that here – we get no breathing space, no explanation, no view unimpeded by metaphor, and I’d argue that in the beginning we could use a little help, especially if your world is so strange and interesting. I wanted to know more! But it was hard to sympathise with any of these characters fighting for something I didn’t understand, and though Lee’s technique of very quickly fleshing out a minor character to make us like them enough to not die is used to great effect later, in the beginning it fell a bit flat for me.

That’s most of my nitpicks out of the way. I loved the world – I wanted to know more! The aesthetic was beautiful and it felt lived-in, even though the book is so short and Lee writes so sparely. The cultural details, the linguistic details, the conventions and histories all rang true.

The characters were fantastic, rounded and alive and with egos and senses of humour that clashed brilliantly. My favourite aspect of the book might have been getting to see what they all thought of each other behind closed doors. The dynamics were wonderful, crackling with electricity and tension, especially with regards to the social hierarchy and inter-faction politics. The Kel, the fighting faction, are who we spend most of our time with, through main character Cheris, the butts of many a stereotypical joke. Though she’s “not like other Kel” in that she’s also very good at maths*, she still conforms to that grain of truth buried in the stereotype, which was really interesting to see.

The whole faction system was really well done, to be honest, and I say that as someone who even now can talk for ten minutes straight about My Problems With Divergent. There’s an element of manipulation and education involved rather than pure natural aptitude, and though the factions are important, there’s a whole universe of people outside it keeping everything actually going.

The Kel in particular have access to something called “formation instinct” (we never find out what this is or how it works, which I suppose we don’t necessarily need to for the story but I wanted to know) which allows them to tap into what is essentially magic that works based on the shape of group formations. It diminishes their free will, which sort of contributes to the Kel jokes. It’s all very well done.

The magic system is based around observance of calendar dates and structures as far as I can tell, and warfare involves a lot of date calculations and working around date effects. It struck me as an extreme version of the sorts of almanac-related superstition you see in Heian-era Japanese literature – think The Tale of Genji. The calendar is manipulable to an extent, by founding new anniversaries or feast days and whatnot, and I wanted more of it. At one point, in one of the best setpieces in the book, our lot know they can pull off a certain manoeuvre if their enemies hold a feast day/victory celebration, so they deliberately throw a battle to lure the enemy into celebrating. This is a great device, but it does hang solely on our acceptance that the feast day is required because reasons. Lee does not seem interested in giving us titbits of lore, unfortunately for me, the lore queen.

It straddled the line for me a bit between magic system and plot device. It’s a hard line to walk, because the reader isn’t meant to understand – there’s not that much that can be kept consistent because the rules are all just vague and implied. But who am I kidding – the calendar system would get by on coolness alone. The way the characters are so comfortable and familiar with it, whether they’re using or subverting it, makes it convincing.

I liked the servitors a lot, and their secret culture. And though I doubt that Cheris is the only person in the universe who was ever nice to them and who they were ever nice to back, this is a trope I love and therefore will defend to the death. I liked seeing them on their own terms, and the parts of them that even Cheris will never be permitted to see. It was a nice twist on the unseen/unvalued domestic world behind the scenes.

So, the big reveal didn’t really pay off for me in terms of shock value. I don’t know what it was, maybe even just the way it’s set up and the fact that it’s a trilogy prepared me for the arc of the story (main character is working for obviously evil people, and by the end will realise how evil they are and change her allegiance). I was never really convinced by Jedao’s “insanity”. His cleverness and obvious lucidity (even in that One Scene really) made it obvious that he was playing a long con. And again, this is fine – this is another trope I love – but I don’t think it stood up well as being The Climactic Reveal.

I did love Jedao unashamedly though. I would absolutely read his memoirs, preferably in multi-volume form, and basically please tell me he isn’t dead? Please?

That’s pretty much everything I can think of to say. If it’s a lot, then it’s because me and my friends did another casual book club around it, so I was being extra alert. And if most of it sounds like nitpicking, then please understand that these nits are very small, and it’s their smallness which means they need so many words to be described. I will definitely be reading the others, anyway.

*Pettiness time! Seeing “math” everywhere was quite jarring. If they can take all the jumpers etc out of Harry Potter, could they not spare a thought for us and just slip an “s” on the end of maths? Just saying!

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