2016’s Ninefox Gambit is the first volume in Yoon Ha Lee’s projected trilogy, The Machineries of Empire.
Success is often punished harshly. Consider the case of Captain Kel Cheris of Heron Company, 109-229th Battalion. She has excelled on the battlefield due to her skill and ingenuity. Those are exactly the qualities her superiors need if they are to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles from the rebels who currently hold it.
Well, skill, ingenuity, and expendability.
The Fortress is essentially impregnable to conventional methods of attack. That leaves only unconventional methods. The hexarchate that commands Captain Cheris is chary of anyone who can color outside the lines; their rule is based on their control of consensus reality. Creativity is at best suspect, at worst heresy and treason. Being chosen for the task force is not an honour. It’s an indication her superiors think Cheris is just unconventional to be on the useful side of heresy.
Cheris requests—and gets—one of the empire’s most fearsome assets: the undead commander Shuos Jedao. He was an officer who never lost a battle. Until he want mad and murdered his own troops. Too dangerous to trust, too valuable to obliterate, Jedao’s shade is kept on hand for impossible tasks like infiltrating the impregnable Fortress. Cheris hopes that Jedao’s shade will help her find a way past the Fortress’ defences.
It turns out that Cheris brings something to the partnership too: her talent as a mathematician. There is a logic behind Jedao’s madness and Cheris knows just how to wield logic. The partnership is stronger than the hexarchate imagines … and it has no reason to love its bosses. Victory against the Fortress may lead to disaster for the realm.
Normally I would rant about yet another novel featuring a cruel, authoritarian future. The fragility of natural law, shaped by the consensus of belief, encourages brutal, top down government that stamps out any deviation from doctrine. One of those deviations is belief in democracy. Hence I suspect that this will be a series, like Leckie’s Ancillary series, in which the overarching story is the struggle of freedom and tyranny, an arc that bends slowly towards democracy and justice. So, not just another tale of boots stamping on human faces forever.
I found the setting a bit off-putting at first. Not sure why. I’ve breezed through novels like Small Gods, where faith shapes reality. In fact, it’s the same McGuffin behind the superpowers of A Certain Magical Index and A Certain Scientific Railgun. Obviously, some cognitive shortcoming on my part.
World-building aside, this is an engaging novel and a promising beginning to the trilogy. For some time, Yoon Ha Lee has been one of the better short story writers in the SF field. This is no indication that he would succeed at longer works. Many authors are comfortable either with short forms, or long forms, but not both. Yoon Ha Lee is clearly ambidextrous. His novel is as strong as any of his short pieces. I heartily recommend it.
Ninefox Gambit is available here.