Nine point response to Ninefox Gambit: a review by Paul Kincaid

Nine point response to Ninefox Gambit: a review by Paul Kincaid

By Paul Kincaid

Ninefox Gambit — Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)

I am possibly not the right audience for this novel. I have read a number of stories by Yoon Ha Lee before this without being particularly impressed by any of them. The novel, Ninefox Gambit crystallized some of those discontents. In no particular order:


Yoon Ha Lee has read too much Iain M. Banks. The influence is everywhere and inescapable: the grotesque deaths, the over-elaborate weapons (including one I couldn’t help identifying as the Lazy Gun from Against a Dark Background), and, of course, the central conceit in which the mind of an ancient general is implanted in a younger person on a suicide mission is a straight lift from Look to Windward. But Banks’s humanity is missing. With Banks you always knew where the author stood, ethically and emotionally; not so with Lee, this is a cold book.


I have read this book before. Not literally, but I have read others so very like it. The independent spirit given a chance to redeem herself by taking on what is effectively a suicide mission; the youth learning from a wily older man; the desperate mission that is being sabotaged by political manoeuvring behind the lines. Every time I thought I could see where this was going, it went exactly where I expected.


“No plan survives contact with the enemy” as Helmuth von Moltke didn’t quite say. It is a fundamental principle of military studies that writers of military sf seem to be congenitally incapable of grasping. Their works are full of Baldrick-like clever plans that seem to go wrong then turn out to have worked perfectly. There are a lot of plans like that in Ninefox Gambit, though one of the things I do like about the book is that things are always running behind schedule and on the ground things are messy and there are casualties. On a tactical level, shall we say, this is an example of military sf that works.


I am less sanguine on what I suppose we should call the strategic level. Let’s just say that the Kel make no sense to me. Yes, obviously, any army needs disciplined and obedient soldiery, but the higher up the ranks you go, the more you need ingenuity, imagination, invention. That is how battles are won. In my own area of expertise, the American Civil War, it is the difference between Lee at Chancellorsville or Sherman’s approach to Atlanta, and Burnside at Fredericksburg; brilliant victories or plodding defeat. Any force that penalises invention, therefore, the way the Kel appear to do, is dooming itself to defeat. And since every foe the Kel are fighting would appear to be heretics who reinvent the calendar and thus alter the grounds upon which the war must be fought, innovation is the only possible route to victory. So the way the Kel are set up and operate guarantees that they cannot win any of the wars they fight.


And yes, I know that Cheris and Jedao are free thinkers that the Kel use, but the whole point of the book is that they are exceptions, that they are not supported by the Kel hierarchy, and that they are expected to fail. The roles that Cheris and Jedao play make a nonsense of everything we are meant to understand about the Kel, and beyond them about the hexarchate as a whole.


This is very possibly the least visual novel I have ever read. Everything is named but nothing is described. Shapeless characters move within grey, formless rooms. Part way through a scene we might happen upon a casual mention of a tree and realise that it is taking place outdoors, something that was not at all apparent before. I know what everything is called but not what anything looks like, which makes it impossible to picture what is going on.


It may just be me, but I have no idea how the calendar stuff works. It is intriguing, but it feels to me not fully worked out. I very much like the way that hereticism consists in devising a new calendar, which can vary even in the number and duration of hours. But this new calendar apparently affects the military formations that can be used (more plans, with the added detail that they are bound to fail) and how different weapons work, and though we are told that this is the case, we are not told how or in what way.


Lee has much the same structural problem with this book that Iain Banks had with early drafts of Use of Weapons, that is there are revelations that dramatically belong at the end of the book, but that provide information the reader requires much earlier in the story. Lee has not solved this problem. Nor is this the only structural problem with the novel, most of which reads like the hyperactive set-up for a climax that would be more interesting as a standalone novelette. There is, for instance, the issue of Jedao: we are constantly told that he is mad, indeed for most of the novel that is practically the only thing we are told about him, yet he never comes across as being mad; we are told that his madness is a threat to Cheris, yet he never presents a threat. There is, in other words, a disconnect throughout the book between telling and showing.


And then there is the issue of war. I have seen people who have said that of course the book is anti-war, that such is the default assumption they made from the moment they began reading it. But such an assumption is, I fear, in the eye of the reader rather than in the actual text. As I said at the start of this piece, there is an emotional coldness in the novel, which makes it hard to read a definitive ethical response to war into the book. And in the absence of such a clear ethical and emotional underpinning, it is possible to read the relish in the description of exotic weaponry, the matter of fact detailing of casualty figures in the millions, the obscene mutilations suffered by some victims, and the casual sacrifice of entire companies of soldiers as a former of military pornography. That may well not be Lee’s intention, but it is not a necessarily invalid reading of the text.


Paul Kincaid was one of the founders of the Arthur C. Clarke Award; he served as a judge for its first two years, and administered the Award from 1996 to 2006. He co-edited The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology with Andrew M. Butler. He has contributed to numerous books and journals, and is the author of two collections of essays and reviews: What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction and Call And Response. His book on Iain M. Banks is forthcoming from University of Illinois Press. He has received the Thomas Clareson Award from the SFRA, and the Best Non-Fiction Award from the BSFA.
>> Read Paul’s introduction and shortlist


  1. Standback 7 years ago

    I’ve been blown away by some of YHLee’s previous stories, but my reaction to Ninefox was very similar to yours.

    Particularly, I was annoyed and frustrated by the sense that the whole book was treading water until the big finale. I felt that pretty much right from the start, it was self-evident that Jedao had hidden motives and wasn’t crazy at all, and the whole book was just kind of hanging around until it’s time to find out the whole story. (Which made me doubly frustrated to learn that the *next* book don’t even have Jedao and Cheris as POV characters. It’s as though the grand rebellion everything’s meant to be about isn’t capable of actually sustaining this story. Instead, it’s just kind of dangled as bait.)

    Regarding (7), the vagueness of the whole calendrical magic and heresy: I’d phrase it a little differently. The concept was very clear to me, and it’s pretty cool: It’s taking the inverted belief of Pratchett’s “Small Gods,” where believing in gods and symbols is what gives them their power, and ruthlessly weaponizing it: building a social system that supports *your* symbols and props up *your* power. (The classic White Wolf RPG “Mage: The Ascension” has a somewhat similar premise…)

    My problem wasn’t that I don’t know how it works; I’m OK with some stuff being hand-wavey. My problem was that it was so *nonspecific*. For all the focus on calendrical systems, there was hardly any mention at all of what “magic” powers the Hexarchate’s calendar might give them. Does it shield them from weapons? Make them breathe underwater? Keep them drugged and loyal? Reincarnate them if they die? Who knows?

    We have absolutely no clue what type or magnitude of effect is possible under these rules, which leaves all the “big” effects feeling really arbitrary. “Oh, I guess they can maybe have a huge shield. In this one place. And nowhere else. For some reason.” “Oh, I guess they have magic effects that do lots of gruesome damage, because that’s what’s happening now. OK.”

    So, yeah, “How does it work” doesn’t bother me; but failing to answer “What are its immediate implications and capabilities” really soured me a lot.

    • Paul Kincaid 7 years ago

      Yes, I agree about the calendar. If Lee had been more specific, had spelled out a little more exactly what changing calendars will do in military terms, then yes, okay, I’d have been happy. But I felt I was in a fog where I thought: there’s something rather cool going on here, but I’ve absolutely no idea what it is, and I’m not entirely sure that the author does either.

    • PhilRM 7 years ago

      Hi Standback – I don’t want to repeat everything I said in one (or more) of the other reviews of Ninefox, but yeah: to me, the very vagueness of the calendrical system made the heretical adoption of alternate calendars seem completely unmotivated. There’s no real sense of what the heretics have to gain from doing so (aside from some off-hand references to exotic weapons). This also seemed to be part and parcel of the general lack of description throughout the novel that Paul alludes to (although I know Megan thought that was a plus!), which given the conceit of the book (alternate calendars producing alternate realities) I thought was a serious mistake.

  2. Mark 7 years ago

    Point of order re #1. Yoon Ha Lee says he has read “one and a half” Iain M Banks books.


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