Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Synopsis from GoodReads:
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.
Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.
The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao–because she might be his next victim.
I loved this book. Full stop. But it’s far from perfect, so let’s start with my issues.
First off, the learning curve is steep. Really steep. None of the terms get explained, you have to pick up a lot of what’s happening from context – which doesn’t always help – and even if you’re paying attention you’re not going to get everything. Part of that is because there’s a lot happening and part of that is because Lee doesn’t always go into full detail of what’s happening, stream-lining things and skimming over what is, to be fair, less interesting details about the fighting.
Secondly, the pacing is kind of all over the place. The last quarter of the book is mostly non-stop revelations and action, but up until then things go from crazy quick to slow as molasses. Combined with the lack of information, it made a good chunk of the novel’s middle feel, well, boring.
So what kept drawing me in? The mystery of Jedao and some quirk of Charis. I don’t know what drew me in about Charis. She’s interesting, yes, but she doesn’t have a fully defined personality. Or so it felt to me. I could pick up a lot based on how she pushed herself, the early chapters before Jedao’s introduction, and based on her reactions to Jedao, but I still don’t feel like I really understand her. Not the way I understood Jedao by the end.
I love the idea of a calendar being integral to technology and the way social customs make the calendar and its tech work. Lee’s got a unique world here and I loved the glimpses we got of it, no matter how horrifying, disgusting, etc. The mathematics, the formations, the signifiers – everything was just so fascinating I would absolutely read a book about the world and society in a heartbeat.
Jedao in particular I found well-handled, both as character, antagonist, and plot device. I loved the different twists he revealed, the facets of his personality, and the way the revelations about his past were handled at the end were some of my favorite scenes thanks to the dissonance of viewing them through someone else’s perspective (and that’s all I’ll say on that matter because, well, spoilers).
And despite not understanding Charis I did enjoy watching her grow and I think I like who she became by the end. I liked a lot of the Kel characters, actually, even the ones who didn’t show up for very much (Kel Marish, for example, although Nerevor was also very cool and showed up for longer).
I didn’t realize when I began reading that this is the first book in a trilogy. In fact, I didn’t find out that it wasn’t a stand alone until I finished the novel and looked up the author to see if he’d written more for this ‘verse. To me, that speaks very highly of Lee’s ability. I appreciate an author who can wrap up the major plot of a book while leaving just enough threads dangling that it could be a standalone but doesn’t have to be.
Quick SPOILERY trigger warning: there is a semi-glossed over rape scene, non-graphic but POV is third-person victim. Adult book, folks.
4 out of 5 stars and I will absolutely be picking up book two when I get a moment.