On the word “hands,” she unsheathed the combat knife, then retrieved her left glove. The knife was sharp in the way of bitter nights. Cheris made a show of sawing off each of the glove’s fingers in turn. They fluttered to the floor, looking like hollowed-out leeches. When she was done, it looked like a ragged imitation of Jedao’s fingerless gloves, the kind no one had worn since his execution.
The silence could have swallowed a star.
One thing I appreciate about Ninefox Gambit is that it pushes the reader into the deep end, thrusting them into a pitched military battle with exotic weaponry and abstruse principles motivating the protagonist and her squadron. Instead of taking time off to make direct explanations, it trusts that the reader can figure out the basics of the situation through context clues. The exact definition of calendrical rot and why it’s synonymous with heresy and insurrection remains elusive by the end of the book, but I can roll with the idea of mathematics and timekeeping warping the laws of physics somehow. Unfortunately, once a reader finally gets their sea legs, they’ll likely realize they’ve ended up in military sci-fi land again, which was a bummer for me to realize.
I don’t mean to sound mean to the mil-SF books I gave good reviews to before, even though I’m starting to doubt whether I still like them. Sometimes I found something about those books to latch onto as I read them, but the only thing that’s motivated me to seek it out is Sad Puppies curiosity. Plus, Ninefox Gambit kept reminding me of other things. When I catch on that there’s a rigidly dogmatic space empire that appears to spend most of its time quashing what it calls heresy, I think of Warhammer 40K with a more dignified aesthetic. When I see the protagonist, captain Kel Cheris, screwed over by her superiors because of politics, it reminds me of Marko Kloos’s first Frontlines book. Her longshot gambit to stop an unprecedented uprising of democracy supporters is to bring back the ghost of the empire’s most infamous war criminal, Shuos Jedao, not realizing that Jedao will be sharing her body in the process. Jedao himself reminds me of Riddick from Pitch Black, a feared, untrustworthy figure with uncertain motives whose expertise the protagonists depend on, but in this case the trope is interesting enough that I don’t mind how familiar it is to me. Unfortunately, once the answer to the riddle of Jedao comes at the end of the book, it left me with almost no desire to pick up Raven Stratagem.
Thinking about it, Ninefox Gambit has the opposite problem of All the Birds in the Sky: the emotional core of it has little staying power compared to the interesting details I saw on the margins. The aesthetic of the hexarchy is a cold, sleek, esoteric and deadly reinterpretation of Asian mysticism, with a complex system of heraldry and symbolism doled out to the reader on a need-to-know basis. The hexarchy also uses an underclass of mechanical animal servitors whose sentience goes unacknowledged by most people, and yet I found segments from their point of view, as an untapped demographic that slyly works around the ignorance of most humans, as the most enjoyable and witty segments (aside from decadent correspondence to the rebel leader from a close adviser) in the book, a welcome reprieve from Cheris’s dour seriousness. Not that the payoff to Jedao (the actual main character of Ninefox Gambit) is bad; I like the uncomfortable, unwanted closeness of him being shackled to Jedao, which is the most interesting use of the book’s bizarro-tech, and the revelations about his backstory include one of the most subtle and sensible treatments of a topic I often see handled with clumsy sensationalism.
Ninefox Gambit is a book I wish I liked more, and part of me regrets putting it so low on my ballot, but again, there’s another book that does a better version of pushing the reader headfirst into a weird new world coming up soon. Yoon Ha Lee unfortunately can’t compete with that.