It is rare that I start a book and really have no idea what is going on, but that is what happened with Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit: Machineries of Empire Book 1. On the surface I knew that a military unit of an empire called the hexarchate was going into combat, against a heretical group called the Eels. That I understood. It was the combat part that confused me. Well that and a good deal more in the book. More on this later.
The book focuses on a pair of characters called to quell a heretical uprising. One is Captain Kel Cheris (Kel representing the main military arm of the hexarchate, and Shuos Jedao, a long dead and once traitorous general who can be called back from the dead, and is occasionally since he is undefeated in all of the conflicts that he has been engaged in, no matter the odds. The Shuos are the spying branch of the hexarchate.
They serve an empire called the hexarchate, which has six distinct groups that guide it, each group with a different role, from military to inquisitional. There is a good deal of infighting among the groups, including advancement by assassination. Each group has developed powers that inexplicable come from following a canatonical calendar that they all use. Adherence to the calendar imparts a huge range of powers from enabling space ships to powerful and bizarre weapons such as one that turns everyone into ribbons of glass. How? No idea.
Also troops that form in set formations are granted powers from the formation. Heretics use different calendars. Adherence to their calendars weakens or completely neutralizes the exotic weapons of the hexarchate and in some cases even the space ships. For instance one side uses weather machines that dissolve troops- that are countered simply by using a new formation. Then a second formation gives an outnumbered unit a power magnifier that enables it to slaughter its foes, initially the Eels.
All of the ambiguities about basics such how do things work such as exotic weapons, space ships, how adherence to the calendar and formations influence each other, the importance of mathematics, how did the universe got this way, are all left unexplained and that is very annoying. No info dump in this tale.
So back to the story. Cheris and Jedao lead an attack on the Fortress of Scattered Needles and use various strategies, weapons and formations to try and crack open a place that is widely thought of as impenetrable. Some of the unexplained come a bit more into focus, or rather you understand that if the characters do A then it affects B which in turn affects C. Still not sure how.
The universe of Ninefox Gambit seems pretty black and white. The only really colorful things about it are place names such as the City of Ravens Feasting and weapon names like snakescratcher dart and the amputation gun. Most of the people and their environment, while ever alterable seem to be just window dressing.
However, I also found the book very compelling, although I think if I was in a different mindset when I started reading it I might not have gotten out of the first chapter. It takes a while for the characters to come into focus, and only a few are granted more than a cursory introduction. There are some interesting twists to the story, and added along the way not just as an ending to cause you to wonder where the story will go. The shifting sands of the political body are always present and makes you think along lines that you might not normally follow in a Sci-Fi book. Apparently others have found the book compelling as it is shortlisted for Best Novel by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. So a Nebula Award could be in its future.
I did not know that Ninefox Gambit had been nominated for a Nebula when I bought the book. A friend had simply told me that I would find it challenging, and it was sitting on an endcap as I walked by at Powells. Usually when I get around to reading books that have won or been nominated for top prizes it is about a decade after the fact. I just read somewhere that the sequel is due this summer, wonder if I will get to it this year. There are so many unanswered questions, not along the lines of why does this work but how will this plot twist turn out and who is behind that action that I expect it to be an interesting read.
I have never read the book Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott or seen any of the film versions, imitation and parodies but I wonder if this is part of the inspiration for this book?