Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Solaris, 2016, 317 p.

 Ninefox Gambit cover

This was on both the Clarke and Hugo Awards shortlists last year, which is why I read it. After two or so pages I wondered why I was bothering. The first chapter is a morass of information dumping and telling rather than showing with a battle described in terms that dwell on the grisly details yet are also bathetic. Plus, for an interplanetary conflict some of the weapons seem far too prosaic; bullets for instance.

We are in a milieu ruled by an all-powerful hexarchate – Shuos, Kel, Andan, Vidona, Rahal, Nirai – each of whose adherents at first seem to stick to one aspect of life (for example the Kel are soldiers whose “formation instinct” is their greatest asset) but turn out not to be quite so restricted. Some time in the past there was a heptarch (Liozh) but that tendency was expunged for calendrical heresy. Lee makes much play on this notion of keeping order by specifying time intervals. Calendrical rot is presented as a constant menace.

In Chapter One main viewpoint character Kel Cheris (Ajewen Cheris) is on a military mission to take an objective but is told to pull out as soon as she achieves it. She reflects that “Kel luck was frequently bad” – in which case why would anyone take part in it, then? Oh, of course. “Formation instinct,” (which seems more like indoctrination than instinct but is injected so must be chemical and which in any case comes over more as hidebound obedience. Yet occasionally some of the Kel do question orders so the instinct can’t actually be all that binding.) Later we are told, “It was one thing to sacrifice Kel soldiers. That was the purpose of the Kel.” Soldiers are for sacrificing are they? That might explain US military tactics down the years.

Cheris has been extracted as a possibility to lead the response to a calendrical rebellion at The Fortress of Scattered Needles. (Quite why she has been identified as a potential candidate is a mystery to this reader.) Her suggestion to resurrect the notorious, never defeated general Shuos Jedao, killer of millions in Hellspin Fortress centuries before and whose personality has been preserved in the black cradle to be trotted out from time to time when needed, is immediately accepted. His essence is implanted in her brain and off they go to challenge the rebels who are influenced by the Liozh tendency and in particular are on the way to implementing democracy, which general Jedao characterises as, “An obscure experimental form of government where citizens choose their own leaders or policies by voting on them.” Kel wonders how that could possibly work. Having Jedao in her head of course changes her by the book’s end, which sadly leaves ample scope for sequels.

The author’s apparent relish in describing body parts on the various battlefields makes his later attempts to induce sympathy or pity for victims of such extreme violence seem hollow, bordering on objectionable, while sentences such as, “It didn’t make him a mathematician, let alone one specializing in calendrical techniques, let alone one trained in this kind of evaluation,” with a phrase repeated after just four intervening words shows the lack of care in the writing (or editing.) This is only one example of many pieces of clunking prose in the book which is more or less a standard piece of military SF and not ground-breaking in any way.

Thankfully Ninefox Gambit won neither of those awards. What it was doing on the shortlists goodness only knows.

Pedant’s corner:- staunch (I prefer stanch,) “all the Kel weren’t as straightforward” (not all the Kel were as straightforward,) indictaed queries from other moth commander as well” (commanders,) “a small team of deltaform servitors were cleaning up the messes” (a team was,) practicing (practising,) “about what about what” (it doesn’t need the repeat,) “it didn’t take long for him long to respond” (either take out “long for” or “long to”,) damndest (damnedest,) a closing quote mark at the beginning of a piece of dialogue. “An infinitely brief pause.” (How can anything be infinitely brief? Infinite and brief are total opposites,) “alternately gold and bronze and silver” (successively gold and bronze and silver,) “‘They weren’t for the heretics, were they.’” (That sentence is a question; so needs a question mark not a full stop.) “‘I could care less.’” (The context is, “I couldn’t care less.”) “clear white” (there is no such thing, clear = see-through, white = opaque; so-called “white light” is actually colourless,) dodecahedrons (dodecahedra,) Nirai (the character has been called Niaad up to here – and later.)

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