Book review: Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire 1) by Yoon Ha Lee

This short and relatively inoffensive book has become quite polarizing in the SF circles. Some fans loved the novel enough to nominate it for the Hugo award. Others were dismayed by the needlessly difficult writing style. I see it as an object lesson on how not to write a book, and a point of comparison on what makes similar books work much better.

Captain Kel Cheris is an infantry soldier for the Hexarchate, a star-spanning empire. In addition to external threats, the empire is fighting numerous rebellions in its ranks, where people are outcast, tortured and killed after being branded heretics. War is conducted using strict mathematical formulas, which dictate everything from firing solutions to the formation of the infantry teams. Cheris, to win a particularly bloody battle, uses equations that have not been approved by the empire, and thus are considered heretical. Even though she wins the battle, her unit is disbanded as a punishment, and she is manipulated into the impossible task of capturing a fortress that has been taken over by a heretical group.

In order to gain an advantage, Cheris proposes to free an imprisoned general, Shuos Jedao, to help her. Jedao had been convicted of treason, but as he has never lost a battle, he was too valuable to be executed. Instead, his consciousness is stored in a device, and occasionally it has been implanted into people, to help in a crisis. Now it’s Cheris’ turn.

Cheris and Jedao lead an expeditionary force, which through subterfuge manages to land troops in the fortress. Through some clever maneuvering and the use unconventional tactics, they manage to defeat the defenders. However, the relief force that arrives opens fire on Cheris’ fleet, killing everyone except Cheris. She manages to fully merge her personality with Jedao’s and escapes in a stealth ship, resolving to continue in Jedao’s efforts to topple the entire empire.

Described like this, the story appears to be a fairly straight-forward space opera. At least that’s what Lee managed by borrowing heavily from David Weber, while confusing readers with unexplained nomenclature and obfuscated concepts. In fact, Ninefox Gambit is a space fantasy, skirting close to LitRPG, which would work quite well as a ruleset for a tabletop game.

On one, largely positive side, the book reads like one of David Weber’s novels. You have a strong and capable female soldier, who becomes a leader and through unorthodox tactics secures victory. She is still persecuted and ultimately betrayed by her country. Partway through the narrative, she merges with another consciousness. Both her and the other have a particular set of complementary skills, and together they form a terrifyingly strong and ruthless protagonist. This description is applicable to Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, but also Weber’s In Fury Born. The only appreciable difference is that while Weber used a mythological consciousness, Lee had an existing historical person, but even so Jedao manifested just as magically as Tisiphone.

The similarity of the protagonists is somewhat obfuscated by the heavy use of invented jargon and concepts that aren’t explained anywhere. While some things may be gleamed from the context, others are not apparent at all, unless the reader has been following the author’s early short stories (including flash fiction) that explain the more important concepts.

The story begins in the middle of a battle, with casualty rates nearing 100%. Most combatants die of weaponized weather, ice crystals or simply walking into affected zones. None is explained, or even hinted at how it works. Instead, Lee spends most of her time on the carnage’s immediate aftermath: piles of bodies in various stages of disintegration. This is also where we first become aware of mathematics in combat. Cheris uses equations to calculate how to position her soldiers, using their “formation instinct” to unquestioningly follow her orders. Those who refuse are killed, either by the enemy, environmental conditions, or her own troops. At this point, the context seems to indicate that soldiers are moving in formations like Napoleonic units, with each unit type and formation specifically strong against certain opponent’s units. Only much later we find out that the formations draw large magical diagrams, which nullify weapons used against them or strengthen their own weapons. For some unexplained reason, however, only some of the formations are authorized by the empire; the use of others is considered heretical and punishable.

Soon, we move to space. Here, we are presented with different ship shapes (or sizes), which appear to play a major role (one ship type is often highlighted as very capable). However, the type names don’t trigger any familiarity, so all the way to the end they are largely inconsequential. For me, there were essentially two types: the ship Cheris was on, and the rest of the ships. Even that wasn’t a meaningful distinction, as nothing on the flagship gave Cheris any kind of advantage; she could have gone to any other ship. Cheris then engages in a space battle of “chaff shapes” versus “invariant ice”, where she wins by “painting” symbols on the hull of the space station. I have just given you the same amount of information as Lee presented in her book. Not even the context helped me to discern what any of the phrases meant.

During the battle in the space station, towards the end of the book, a weapon was used that cut soldiers into pieces. Lee spends more time describing how a random soldier felt while being cut to ribbons, than describing how and why those weapons worked. Here, however, some things begin to click into place. In several places, the narrative hinted that the imperial calendar was significant. During the last battle, it became apparent that the local calendar, different from the imperial one, affected the formations and calculations as presented in the first battle. New formations needed to be calculated, to counter the defensive weapons. What’s the significance of a calendar in respect to battle formations is still unclear to me, but my money is on the calendars being simply different branches of magic.

There are different schools of thought regarding exposition in books. Opinions range from having introductory paragraphs with historical data and nomenclature, through exposition used when needed, as part of text, to appendices (the last is quickly falling out of fashion as the use of e-books is growing). Many writers prefer no exposition at all, instead having readers figure things out for themselves. In that case, writers are trying to make it easier by using familiar terms and concepts. Going back to the spaceships, for example, much of military science fiction is still borrowing ship classification from current naval fleets, even though it doesn’t make sense in space. So, we have destroyers, battleships, dreadnoughts, and everything in between. Jack Campbell, in his Lost Fleet series, goes as far as describing the formations, with each ship type in a specified location. Ninefox Gambit doesn’t need to go into such a detail, but if Lee cared about any distinction between her ships, she would have given the reader some familiar names, anchored in reality.

The use of weather and exotic weapons in combat was also confusing. Was that nanomachinery, specific chemicals, biological agents or what? It doesn’t help that the few effects the author describes show no internal consistency. The weapons range from cold weather, through corrosive hail, to invisible zones that cut people to pieces. Or weapons that massacre tens of thousands of people without giving the reader an idea of what the are doing or what’s left after they are done killing. Were they spreading nerve gas, or were they fast enough to shoot co many people? In comparison, Robert McCammon’s The Border has aliens battling on Earth, who are able to transform old and rusty cars into dragons and create entire hordes of zombies. In this cosmic horror story, the inner workings of the weapons were not explained (sufficiently advanced technology undistinguishable from magic and all that), but their effects, what they did and what they were capable of, was more than evident. The protagonists had a real reason to fear these weapons. On the other hand, in Lee’s novel, they simply walk towards a death they can’t understand. In one scene, that’s actually exactly what they do: walk into a weapon until they cause something akin to integer overflow and the weapon stops working.

It appears to me that Yoon Ha Lee was largely indifferent to her characters or even most of her universe. She had an idea for a tabletop strategy game, which she tried to convert into a more personable story. The game features six factions of the Hexarchate, each with its own very distinct skills and preferences. Combat is calculated using complex mathematical formulas, which rely on a specific ruleset (the calendar), but these rules are location-specific, and may change in different locations. It’s like having to use a 12-sided die in one location and two 6-sided dice in another, but far more complicated. The author even hints at a board game of this caliber via a lengthy sequence where Jedao is forcing Cheris to design board games, in order to prepare her for recalculating her formations using a new ruleset. The rest of the book, its characters and stories, is simply an attempt at making the game more palatable to readers, but it reeks of the author’s indifference to the story. If I may be blunt, I believe that she couldn’t be bothered with the story, so she borrowed all she could from Weber. Or maybe the editor told Lee to put some lipstick on her original prose.

Be it as it may, the similarity to Weber’s work is the only saving grace of this book. It gives the story the feel of an adventure, and it makes Cheris just compelling enough to feel worried for her towards the end. However, the needless use of strange nomenclature and obfuscation of all concepts will make me think very hard whether to pick up the sequel.

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