May 112017

Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Synopsis: A young captain, aided by the ghost of a genius-but-insane general, must retake an impenetrable space fortress from the rebels that have seized control of it — in a universe where the laws of physics can be changed by consensus belief.

Book Review: First thing to note is that this is a Science Fantasy. That’s a fairly new term for an old concept. It’s been said that genre is mainly defined by its furniture, and I basically agree with this. So what do you call it when the furniture is both Science Fiction – spaceships, lasers, computers – and Fantasy – ghosts, ritual magic, sword fights? You call it Science Fantasy. It’s generally closer to Warhammer 40K than Star Wars, but both of those count. So, if you don’t like magic in your SF, you may not like this.

The magic in Ninefox Gambit is particularly neat, because the conceit is that consensus belief (as expressed through holy days and religious ritual) alters the laws of physics. That means that if enough people start believing things outside of official dogma your super-powerful space weapons and exotic defenses stop working, and your stardrives break down and you can’t keep the empire together. Publicly torturing heretics to reinforce orthodox belief becomes a matter of both galactic security and personal safety (who wants to find out what happens when your artificial gravity or inertial dampners stop working?).

The fact that the story is conveyed within an altered physics by a character who is native to that physics makes the world endlessly fascinating. When a fox-servitor hops up *on the air* to come level with a table was my first big “Oh, wow, this is nothing like my physics” moment. In places light has texture. It’s relentlessly cool. But it’s also dense and alien, and all these things are conveyed by just thrusting you in the world and letting you figure it out via context, so the reading requires work. It took me as long a read this book as one twice it’s size normally would, because it was slow going parsing what was going on. I view this as a mark in the book’s favor, but don’t underestimate the time this will take, and don’t rush through it or you’ll lose lots of important details.

The plot is mil-fic layered over espionage. I find this a bit of a problem, because I’m not that big a fan of mil-fic, but I wasn’t ever bored, so at least it wasn’t bad mil-fic. The espionage added an interesting aspect, but… well…

I fell in love with this book early, due to the rich complexity and the LIBRARIES of potential here. The insane general who can only speak to the protagonist (Cheris) is basically an AI-in-a-box, with Cheris’s mind as the box! And she has to rely on him to win the battle, while being very careful not to let him escape, or betray the empire covertly, or subvert her into joining him. I thought the line “When he sounds sane and the rest of the world doesn’t, you know it’s time to pull the trigger” was the best freakin’ setup in the history of mental-battles ever. I was looking forward to some serious Death Note/Sword Of Good-style mind-fuckery.

The general’s mysterious mass-slaughter betrayal centuries ago was a fantastic set-up for some sort of Traitor Baru/Mycroft Canner/Cold Equations style “forced to do horrific thing for the greater good” backstory. The servitor’s secret society who’s existence must remain hidden from the humans was fascinating. There was just sooooo much deliciousness here that I still get excited thinking about it!

Plus the writing is gorgeous.

But in the end it all boils down to a basic plot with pretty simplistic motivations. All that potential is wasted in the service of a regular ol’ good person v evil empire story. It’s well done, and I feel like the parent who complains that their super-genius child is wasting their potential simply getting A’s in regular school when they could be pushing into early-college classes and super-advanced hard stuff. Like, it’s the kid’s life, it’s the kid’s potential, they can use it any way they please. But it’s still so heartbreaking to know what’s possible, and not see it realized.

I think this is an amazing set up for what could be one of the most epic Rational Fics ever. I kinda (very much) hope that someone in the RatFic community picks this up and creates the fanfic that makes it what I wish it was. :) Which sounds awful to say, and I’m sure Lee wouldn’t thank me for poo-pooing on their ending. I’m sorry! I loved the rest of it so much.

Anyway, despite the flat ending, still Recommended. Enough coolness in there to make it worth it, and maybe someone will be inspired to take it further.

Book Club Review: An interesting mix. This seems very much a book that grabs you early or turns you off early. A few of our members just didn’t get (or didn’t like) the “physics is altered by consensus beliefs” thing, and so the magic was chaotic and confusing and the universe made no sense to them. To be fair, the magic is chaotic and confusing, and the universe is intentionally bizarre. If you don’t pick up several core concepts fairly quickly the book is borderline nonsensical. Even among those who got it, not everyone appreciated it.

Due to the strangeness of the setting, most of the discussion ended up circling around that. Exploring the implications and/or complaining about the obfuscating explanations. The major theme(s?) of the book were lost among world building details and explosions. I don’t think this is bad though, we still had a pretty fun time talking.

It’s also a Hugo Finalist, so a bunch of other people will also have read it. One can discuss what traits likely caught the attention of Hugo readers, and how one feels about literary awards generally.

If your group is up for a challenge, then Recommended.

  4 Responses to “SF/F Review – Ninefox Gambit”

  1. Just wanted to note that I don’t think Science Fantasy is a new term. I remember it being used when I was a kid, and that’s now a long time ago.

    • Oh really? Huh. I definitely remember the style, but I hadn’t heard the actual term “Science Fantasy” until a few years back. I was probably rather out of touch though, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve actually started engaging in community (with anyone…) rather than just holing up and reading on my own.

  2. This sounds pretty rad. I will check it out.

  3. Reminds me a bit of how the dementors work in HPMoR. Well, that was my first thought, anyway, when I read the description.

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