Captain Kel Cheris of the Hexarchate may have won a battle, but she’s been officially disgraced for using forbidden strategies to do it. Ordinarily this would mean execution – or worse – but she’s been given a chance to redeem herself. Heretics have captured The Fortress of Scattered Needles, and to recover it Cheris will be using the most dangerous weapon available: the famous tactician Shuos Jedao.
In his entire military career Jedeo never lost a battle, including his last one where he slaughtered thousands of civilians, the enemy army, his own army, and everyone aboard his ship. It’s been four hundred years since he finished off each of his command crew with a bullet to the head, and the Hexarchate is still no closer to understanding why.
He sounded like a good commander. Of course, everyone had thought he was a good commander until he stopped being a good human being.
Let’s start with the obvious; this book is extremely challenging. I’ve read several of Yoon Ha Lee’s short stories; he’s a brilliant world-builder, and he’s outdone himself in this book with the complex worlds he’s created here. And I mean really complex. I’ve always loved the storytelling style of dropping the reader into the middle of a situation and letting everyone figure things out as they go along. It shows the writer respects the intelligence of the reader. There were times, though, that I wished he’d dumb things down just a little bit.
You start out in the middle of a battle, in a universe where power is based on the calendar. Read that last sentence again; you don’t get much more to go on. The way days and months are measured, added to mandatory ritual observances of historic events, combines to work with the technology of the ruling power. Weapons, shields, effects that you generate by having soldiers march in a specific formation, all of this is based on “calendrical mechanics”, and none of it is ever fully explained. It works with math, and by having everyone follow the same calendar. Anyone bucking the system is branded a “heretic”, partly because it means someone’s rebelling against the ruling power, and mostly because if too many people start following a different calendar it means any technology based on the main calendar stops working.
I got all of that by reading the first chapter a couple of times, and I still had to figure out the organization of a society based on six factions (well seven, until one faction was eradicated for heresy), terms I didn’t understand like voidmoths, formation instinct, hexarchate, and whatever the heck a servitor is. Everything is dropped into the reader’s lap with minimal explanation.
And I don’t think being confused is an unintended side effect, I think it’s exactly the point.
This is an extremely complex society, with a despotic government, and separate factions that are working against each other all the time. Everyone has their own agenda, there are layers of meaning in even the smallest details, no one ever gets all the information they need, and everyone is one bad decision away from dying. Cheris damn near got herself executed by tailoring her strategy to fit a heretical calendar, and her only other option at the time would have been to lose the battle and then die horribly anyway. Of course it’s a panicky, confusing situation, and the author expresses that by making sure the reader is off-balance for at least the first quarter of the book.
Yoon Ha Lee’s writing about the rest of the vast universe surrounding the main plot is a study in contrasts. This is a futuristic society where some members spend their entire lives without setting foot on a planet, and yet the mechanical servitors running around the ships are all shaped like animals and birds. The society’s technology is so far advanced it has one entire faction of the government devoted to nothing but math, but the “calendrical observances” that are required to keep everything running are mostly ritual sacrifice and torture. Shields blaze with images of feathers and rose petals when under bombardment, battleships have elegant names like Six Spires Standing and Auspicious Glass. The battle-hardened main character likes soap operas, and the genius military strategist she works with was regularly teased about growing up on a farm with geese.
The character of Captain Cheris is amazingly sympathetic, a lot of which is due to her own personality contrasts. Her grasp of mathematics would have qualified her for the Nirai faction, but she chose to join the Kel, the soldier faction where everyone is programmed to blindly follow the orders of anyone who outranks them. Cheris is a soldier through and through, an excellent tactician and willing to make tough decisions in the middle of a battle…and yet she makes a point of befriending servitors. (I thought that was particularly endearing. Cheris likes the servitors because they appreciate a good discussion about math. The servitors like Cheris because she treats them like actual people; she regularly invites servitors to sit and watch overwrought televised dramas with her.)
The response to her message came in the middle of a drama episode about, as far as she or the servitors could tell, five Kel, an Andan duelist’s telescoping hairpins, and a dinner party gone horribly wrong.
It’s the opposing elements in Cheris’s life that are the driving force behind the book. She’s a Kel, with the brain of a Nirai, working with history’s most notorious Shuos (the faction of assassins, spies, and altogether not-to-be-trusted government agents.) As such, she can see her problems from three sides; she can figure out mathematical problems related to strategy and calendrical mechanics on the fly, she has access to a devious mind who knows how to use psychological warfare, and she’s intimately familiar with a soldier’s mindset and exactly what they’ll go through once they walk into a situation they’re not coming out of.
That last part is were we get to see the real horror of war, when numbers on a grid and a plan to convince the enemy to walk into a trap add up to literally thousands of people dying and truly horrible things happening to your own soldiers. (And I do mean horrible. One battle is ended quickly with an amputation gun. It’s exactly as awful as it sounds, and it’s not the worst way to die in this book. Not even close.)
Ninefox Gambit comes out in June, and I’m still torn on whether or not it needs a glossary of terms added when it’s released. There’s a lot of satisfaction in finally being able to figure out what the author is talking about. I think the book probably needs to be reread at least once, so I can understand passages that I had to just plow though the first time. Not a hardship there; there are levels and levels of fascinating details to read in every page. And this is only the first book of a trilogy, in a story that gets more and more complex every chapter, so I’m very curious to see what the author does now that he’s already had an entire book to set the stage for the coming drama.