Mathematical Warfare: My Review of Ninefox Gambit

Hello everyone! I hope that you are all staying safe. Today I am reviewing Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. After the review, I will have some updates for you about how the pandemic is affecting the blog and what you can expect in the coming months. 

I’m going to be honest; this book was a slog for me. I’ve given a lot of thought as to why that was and what specific things could have made this book work better. I know there are probably a lot of people out there who love this book and can’t understand why I didn’t, as always, this review is subjective. On some level, my problems with Ninefox Gambit might be stylistic, but I think that Lee failed to do some important things that every writer needs to do to make their story connect with readers. 

Ninefox Gambit takes place in a distant future and follows the story of Cheris, a young soldier from a military organization called the Kel. When she is recruited to help bring down a fortress that is rebelling against the government, she determines that the only way to win is to enlist the help of a long-dead general who was known as a mad genius. The catch is that the last time he commanded troops, he turned against his own men and perpetrated one of the biggest slaughters in history. 

Cheris’ universe is run by a mathematical system having to do with the calendar. The government has defined an orthodox version of the calendrical system and they require a religious devotion to it. Throughout the history of this universe and in the present of the book, there have been rebellions against the orthodox calendar. The calendrical system is a source of both magic and technology, and the ‘heretical’ calendrical systems have access to different varieties of these things. The rebellion that Cheris is fighting against is one of these heretical groups that have managed to infiltrate an impregnable fortress.

On a surface level, that description sounds like it has the makings of a fascinating story, but it’s the presentation that goes all wrong. Lee throws his readers into a very alien world very quickly. As an avid fantasy reader, I am used to this, and I usually enjoy the mystery of finding out how different aspects of a world function. The problem in this book was that almost no explanation was given for fundamental parts of the world that were important to the story.

I was able to figure out what some of the terminologies related to from context, but all the bizarre words for things that ended up being spaceships and robots took me out of the story. During some sections of the book, I felt like I was trying to read something in a language I don’t speak proficiently.  This would have been fine if it had lasted a few pages and then become more intelligible, but I was halfway through the book before I understood the basic setup and terminology of the world.

The main problem I had with Ninefox Gambit, is that Lee doesn’t provide enough information about why his protagonist’s actions matter or about why the characters in the book have chosen the sides that they are on.  For instance, why are people opposed to the orthodox calendrical system? Is it because they are suffering under its rule? Do they think they can build a better society? What would “better” even look like? I got the impression several times that philosophical or pedantic differences were at the root of the conflict. If there was any tangible reason for rebellion it was never made clear. I was also never clear on what would happen if Cheris were to fail in her mission to end the heresy at the fortress. Lee didn’t let us know what kind of fallout would result from that or what it would mean for anyone other than the ruling elite (who presumably would lose their jobs.) I didn’t know why any of these things mattered to the characters, so they didn’t matter to me and I had a hard time caring about the story. 

Having said this, I have to acknowledge some strengths of the book. The characterization was pretty well done, especially the character of Jedao, the undead general. On a sentence level, there was some fantastic writing, and the magic/technology presented was unique and visually appealing. I also appreciated the idea in the book that what a group of people believes in can alter physical reality.  There are a lot of great ideas here. I just didn’t feel like they were presented in a way that pulled me in as a reader. 

I think that from a writing perspective, this book serves as a good reminder that no matter how cool your ideas are, you need to consider your reader and give them a reason to care about your story. The best way to do that is to let them know what the status quo of your world is, why it’s good or bad, and what would happen to your characters if this status quo were to change. The reader also needs to know what the stakes are for your characters if they fail in their missions. As long as these ideas are presented clearly, you can make the minutiae of your world-building obscure or bizarre without chasing away your reader. 

If you have read Ninefox Gambit, I would love to hear what you thought of it. In April I will be reading (or rather listening to) The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a novel that deals with the Black experience in America. 

How Covid-19 Is Affecting the Blog:

All of the libraries in my county closed abruptly a few weeks ago. Luckily I do have access to their digital loaning services and was able to rent the audio book version of The Invisible Man. Since none of us know how long the lock-down will last I am looking at alternative blog topics to write on. In the event that I’m not able to access the books I have planned for future months, I will read books that I already own. I think that The Lord of the Rings would be a great book to look at on this blog. Alternatively I could also do a blog on the Wheel of Time series or another fantasy classic. Please let me know if you have a preference and I will try to accommodate it. 

My goal is to keep the blog interesting and educational, even if I can’t follow my initial reading plan. I hope that you are all well and that this blog can be a source of entertainment and escape for you during these challenging times. 

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