TITLE: Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1)
AUTHOR: Yoon Ha Lee
GENRE: Fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy
PUBLISHED: June 14, 2016
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
Compliance and conformity are necessary aspects of life. Oftentimes we are rewarded by society when we follow what everyone says is the right thing to do. In some cases, compliance and conformity can be a matter of life and death, such as in military operations where doing something spontaneous can endanger not only the self, but comrades and innocent civilians as well.
But conforming to everything is not healthy, either. Opportunities to express individuality are vital to mental health, and crucial to developing a true sense of self. Sometimes the world does not like these manifestations of individuality, might scorn them and try to snuff them out, but as long as such expressions harm no one, they are generally safe and should not be frowned upon.
But what if the world relied upon total compliance? What if, in order to make everything work as it should, every individual needs to subsume themselves completely to what society says is right? In the world of Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, absolute conformity is the bedrock of society but comes at the cost of a lot of bloodshed. First book in the Machineries of Empire series, it tells the story of Kel Cheris, a captain in the hexarchate who has been disgraced for “heretical tactics” during a battle. Knowing that a price must be paid for going against her superiors, Cheris is prepared to accept the inevitable - but what she receives is not what she expected. Instead of punishment, she is given an incredibly prestigious assignment: to take back the impenetrable Fortress of Scattered Needles, which has recently fallen under heretic control.
However, given the scale of the operation, it is clear that Cheris cannot do this alone. So she is given a partner in the form of Shuos Jedao: a brilliant tactician famous for never having lost a battle, but notorious as a madman who massacred an opposing army - and his own. And as the siege wears on and they spend more time together, Cheris begins to wonder whether all she knows about Jedao is actually true - and if such questions are not a sign of her own, impending madness.
One of the first things readers need to know about this novel is its learning curve is rather steep. The author applies the “sink or swim” approach to his world-building, by which I mean the author simply throws the reader into the midst of the world and leaves him or her to figure everything out on his or her own. The opening paragraphs of this novel provide a good example:
At Kel Academy, an instructor had explained to Kel Cheris’s class that the threshold winnower was a weapon of last resort, and not just for its notorious connotations. Said instructor had once witnessed a winnower in use. The detail that stuck in Cheris’s head wasn’t the part where every door in the besieged city exhaled radiation that baked the inhabitants dead. It wasn’t the weapon’s governing equations or even the instructor’s left eye, damaged during the attack, from which ghostlight glimmered.
What Cheris remembered most was the instructor’s aside: that returning to corpses that were only corpses, rather than radiation gates contorted against black-blasted walls and glassy rubble, eyes ruptured open, was one of the best moments of her life.
There is a lot of information to parse in the above. First is the introduction of a named character, who might or might not be the novel’s protagonist, but since the said character is named, then he or she must be important, and therefore the reader must focus on him or her. But at the same time, there are other things that might draw the reader’s attention away: namely, Cheris’s milieu. The reader might ask: what is a threshold winnower, exactly? Why does it use governing equations? What are those governing equations? What does ghostlight have to do with any of this? For that matter, what is ghostlight?
A lot of questions, to be sure, and ones that do not exactly get definitive answers - or at least, not in the sense that a threshold winnower’s inner workings are actually explained at any point in time, or ghostlight is defined for the reader. Even for readers who are willing to let those sorts of details slide in favour of other important things will soon find themselves quickly overwhelmed by the other details of the setting.
My recommendation when dealing with the setting is to think of it as a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. To be sure, there will be plenty of elements that make good scientific sense, but there will also be plenty of other elements (like “exotic effects” and “calendrical rot”) that do not make any immediate sense at all. In such cases, it helps to approach them in the same way that a reader would approach magic in fantasy stories: something that works on a system, but which does not have any clear grounding in scientific fact. Think of Cheris’ world as being a little like the world of Star Wars, except grittier and darker and far, far bloodier.
It also helps not to rush through this novel - at least, not at first. The pace will most certainly pick up once certain characters come into play, but in the meantime it might help the reader to slow down and take time to absorb the details and piece the world together by himself or herself. This is an exercise in patience and focus, to be sure, and will probably turn off some readers who are looking for a more quickly-paced story, but for readers who are willing to put the time and effort into learning about the setting, the payoff is more than satisfactory.
While some readers might not appreciate the way the setting is handled, I am sure that more would appreciate the author’s handling of character portrayal and development - in particular, the relationship between Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao. Cheris starts out as loyal to her faction and the hexarchate as a whole, though even then, she has lingering questions that pop up in her head from time to time:
The Eels called themselves the Society of the Flourish, although the hexarchate didn’t use this name. Taking away people’s names denied their power, a lesson Cheris tried not to think about.
Despite these doubts, however, Cheris is earnest, loyal, and entirely noble. She is concerned about doing the right thing for those under her command and for the people of the hexarchate, whom she, as a Kel soldier, is supposed to protect.
Shuos Jedao, on the other hand, might be considered her exact opposite. Initially, all the reader knows about him is what Cheris knows about him, which is that he is a volatile mix of utter genius and sheer madness:
… Three hundred ninety-nine years ago General Shuos Jedao was in the service of the Kel. Because he had a reputation for winning unwinnable fights, they assigned him to deal with the Lanterner rebellion.
In five battles, Jedao shattered the rebels. In the first battle, at Candle Arc, he was outnumbered eight to one. In the second, that was no longer true. The rebels’ leader escaped to Hellspin Fortress, which was guarded by predatory masses and corrosive dust, but the heptarchs expected that Jedao would capture the fortress without undue difficulty.
Instead, Jedao plunged the entirety of his force into the gyre and activated the first threshold winnowers, known ever since for their deadliness. Lanterners and Kel alike drowned in a surfeit of corpselight.
On the command moth, Jedao pulled out an ordinary pistol, his Patterner 52, and murdered his staff. They were fine soldiers, but he was their better. Or he had been.
… Shuos Jedao, the Immolation Fox: genius, arch-traitor, and mass murderer.
However, when Cheris finally spends enough time with Jedao, her assessment (and the reader’s) changes. There are moments, small but significant ones, where Cheris notices something about Jedao: a sense of human feeling shining through - more than that, a sense of vulnerability. In those moments, both Cheris and the reader get the feeling that maybe Jedao is not the madman history has made him out to be - that maybe history was deliberately rewritten around him to paint him as the villain.
But then, as the story progresses, the reader realises that there might be some truth to history labelling Jedao a madman, especially when he says things like:
“…reputation: it’s an awful tool to have, but you can’t escape it, so you must learn to use it.”
“I understand, sir,” she said. She did. They didn’t call Jedao a weapon for nothing; and fear of weapons was a weapon in itself.
This dichotomy in Jedao’s character is utterly fascinating, and the main reason why I am so drawn to him. Reading about the unveiling of his character and motivations, the peeling back of the layers of myth and history to reveal the truth, is an utterly compelling story - probably the story of this whole novel. Though this novel is supposed to be about a siege, that story feels almost incidental in comparison to the one focusing on Cheris and Jedao. Yes, the siege still does happen, and the tactics Cheris and Jedao employ to take it also make for good reading, but it pales in comparison to the story of those two characters getting to know each other, and understanding each other’s motivations and goals, and how that information shapes them as people.
And understanding those motivations and goals is key to understanding the themes that underlie this novel. Throughout the novel Cheris deals with questions of compliance: complying with what those under her command want her to do, complying with what her faction expects her to do, complying with the other faction she knows is pulling strings - all so she can win, because the hexarchate runs on compliance to the calendar, and without that compliance, everything fails. That is why heresy is such a touchy issue, and must be stamped out at all costs.
But is it, really? The hexarchate always insists that there is only one right way to do things, and that comes with costs: things like names, and cultures, connections to family and loved ones - even human lives. Such things are small in the face of achieving and ensuring unity, and no one knows this more than a Kel.
But Cheris, through Jedao, realises that this is not true. There is no single, correct way to deal with anything, whether it is potential insubordination in the ranks, or cracking open a supposedly impenetrable fortress. A price must be paid, yes, but who is being asked to pay that price, and by whom, and more importantly, why? Just as in the real world, Cheris must ask these questions about the entire system she is supposed to uphold, and must come up with her own answers. And it is something that we, in the real world, must do as well. We need to look at all the violence, the oppression, the suffering we see around us, and ask: Is holding on to what we have worth what is being paid to maintain it?
Overall, Ninefox Gambit is an utterly compelling, fascinating sci-fi read, but perhaps not quite what some readers might expect. On one hand, there are some elements that feel more fantastical than scientific, which can make it hard for the reader to really settle into the story’s milieu. On the other, the focus on characters instead of on plot might throw some readers off, especially if they come to this book looking for a fast-paced, action-packed story. Instead, this novel focuses on character development, and on laying down the groundwork for central themes of rebellion and revolution, thus setting the stage for the upcoming novels in the series. Given what happens at the end of this one, I am quite certain the next ones will be equally compelling.