Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

First, some backstory: if you’ve been here since 2017, you probably remember me reviewing Ninefox Gambit before and are probably tired of hearing me talk about it, too. And I have – it’s just that, at the time, I wasn’t that fluent in English, and that review is a mess – so I decided to review this book again (and turn the settings of the old one to private). I want to be able to link something coherent when it comes to a book I often talk about.

So! Here’s Acqua’s review of Ninefox Gambit on sixth reread.


NinefoxGambitNinefox Gambit is my favorite book.
It’s the kind of novel I could reread over and over and still get something new from – this was the sixth reread in two years for me, and I’m still discovering things about this world.

But let’s get to what Ninefox Gambit is. This is a story about sieges: Cheris’ siege of a space fortress, and Jedao’s siege of Cheris’ values, beliefs and mind. And it is, in fact, a very twisty book, without needing that many shocking plot twists – just layers upon layers of mind games present and past, slowly unraveling towards a partial truth.
I say “partial”, because this book will almost never straightforwardly reveal that a certain character was lying in a particular moment, which, in a book in which most non-PoV characters are often at the very least lying by omission, makes for an interesting exercise in ambiguity. You know some of them are liars. Being able to tell when they’re lying – well, that’s not always as easy, and a few things are left for you to interpret.

I often see people say that this book is hard to get into, because “it doesn’t explain enough” – which is said both about the way it relies on hints and subtext and about the worldbuilding, which is, admittedly, one of the most unique (read: outright bizarre) I’ve ever read. I strongly disagree. I really appreciate when a book trusts its reader to keep up, to figure things on their own. Maybe it will take more of my attention, and it won’t be an easy read, but I’m glad to not have to wade through infodumps every time I reread. It’s a graceful writing choice, in my opinion.
(Also: if a 17-year-old ESL speaker made it, you probably can too.)

Ninefox Gambit is deceptively short. It’s barely longer than 300 pages, and yet it’s one of the few books that managed to convince me that there’s an entire universe of things happening outside the Scattered Needles siege, an universe with a complicated and often ugly history, and I love how wide it feels, how high the stakes are at the end.
It mostly follows two characters, whom I love with my whole heard, even though they’re terrible.
🦊 Kel Cheris, math lesbian and professional trouble magnet, narrates most of this book. She makes friends with AIs (“servitors”), joined the military faction because she wanted to fit in, and got caught up into a scheme that led her to be anchored to Jedao’s ghost and leading the swarm (space fleet) in the Scattered Needles siege. Deserves a nap. Unlike many of the characters, she still has a somewhat functioning moral compass.
🦊 Shuos Jedao, bisexual disaster, was a general who lived centuries before the siege, and he is well known for never losing a battle and for having slaughtered his own army during his last one for apparently no reason. He’s not the kind of person you think of when you think about mass murder – he’s charming, far from unfeeling, likes talking to people, and is mostly a pleasant person to be around. Until he’s not. With every reread, I realize more and more how much of a manipulative bastard he is – this is one of the few books in which the manipulative character not only was actually good at manipulating, but the book made me believe he was.

And the Cheris-Jedao dynamic? So fascinating. It reminds me of how much can be done with relationships that aren’t romantic in the slightest when you develop them enough.

There are other relevant characters I love, like Hexarch Shuos Mikodez (the morally messed up and aroace highlight of book two), and Hexarch Nirai Kujen, the evil scientist who reads like the sci-fi version of a fae (cruel, beautiful, impossibly ancient). A few chapters are told from the PoVs of minor characters to show what’s going on while Cheris and Jedao’s ghost are in the command center. And even those characters left an impact on me, and that’s not easy to accomplish.

I also, of course, love the worldbuilding to pieces. It’s Korean-inspired space opera with a math-based magic system that is affected by people’s beliefs and by the system of timekeeping they implement. It’s fascinating and not easy to understand at first, but I loved it for its beauty and weirdness – for a bloodthirsty space dystopia where war and ritual torture are the norm, the Hexarchate is beautiful in an unsettling way. And it’s also very queer; this book has an all-queer cast, and it’s the demonstration that you can write about queer people living in objectively horrible places without writing queer trauma porn (there are no homophobia or sexism in this book, and it’s still very much a space dystopia.)

And one last thing, before I turn this review into a book in itself: I love how this novel plays with ableist assumptions. The amount of people who don’t try to dig deeper in the circumstances around Jedao’s mass murder and take “madness” as a reason for what he did is… oddly realistic. As this book says, as straightforward as it ever gets, that’s not how things work.

My rating: ★★★★★

Trigger Warnings, if you need them – I think it’s better to go into this prepared (they’re not actually spoilers, but if you want to go into this without knowing anything more, don’t read this):

  • This is a story about war, which means that trigger warnings for extreme violence, gore, and mass death are necessary, plus graphic dismemberment and animal death because it’s that kind of book
  • This deals with suicide. There’s on-page suicidal ideation and the beginning of an attempt (character changes their mind). There are deaths by suicide, but they’re only mentioned and/or in flashbacks and don’t directly involve the main characters. There is, however, a scene involving dissociation from a PoV character.
  • Near the ending, there’s a scene in which a woman sexually assaults a man. It’s in the first pages of chapter 21 if you need to know where to skip/skim.
  • Also, mentions of torture, as ritual torture is how this universe works, but no explicit torture scenes.
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2 thoughts on “Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

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