Tag Archives: space opera

Ninefox Gambit in Review

Every once in a while, my wife will suggest I read something she’s just read because I will, just like her, love it. I resist these recommendations. Somehow it feels like a set-up for failure; I’ll fail to love the book, the author will fail to live up to the advertisement, my wife will fail in her recognition of my preferences. So much riding on such small acts.

I just finished reading Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. I think you should read it.

cover of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

As a writer, I resist the temptation to compare and contrast myself against authors. Any such comparison would be beyond odious. I have, mostly, shed this wretched habit. I wanted to practice this newfound appreciation of others. I do not need the proverbial bitters before this meal. I long to pull out a chair at Yoon Ha Lee’s table.

This is the type of story that has stepped light-years out along a continuum and brought back a story of the future.

The writing feels a bit dense in the beginning as you struggle to find a raft in the sea of new perspective Yoon Ha drops you into. From the very first, you’re deep in the universe of the story. This is a powerful opera in the making; rich worldbuilding saves you from drowning, only to push you back under, once or twice, and fabulous character development gives you bridges into worlds beyond your imagining. Or not. If you’ve lived this kind of madness, there are a thousand gurus seeking you.

The teacher in the novel is a dark presence. There are no light presences. This is a story of liferafts. The characters lurch from the debris of one disaster after another. If you read quickly, you’ll find yourself grabbing the edges, just as you grabbed the toboggan on those really ragged, long hills; speed and height leave you scrabbling for a handhold.

The pronouncements provided by Ninefox Gambit, written into this amazing adventure by Yoon Ha Lee, are cutting edge in a social dynamic that roiling with uncertainty and rip tides. Some might call it brave. I call it scalding. I think you have to be brave to really read it.

It helped to have read the Locus interview with the author.

The novel is an equation to be solved. Reflecting back on the story with that in mind, I find that each scene is both an equation and a result inserted into the larger equation. It’s a pragmatic view and one shared by few writers. The idea percolated and with a light switch from music to math, we find ourselves traveling an entirely new universe.

The plotline is tangled enough to satisfy the lustiest of plot lovers. There are scenes that may, momentarily, seem jarringly unrelated to the core story arc, but as you chew on the author’s vision, it becomes clear that the divisions of society both work and don’t work. A working version of the universe is in place, but, as always when the powers have everything settled to their satisfaction, a rebel is born. Some rebels must then be cultivated and set against that external rebel.

Rebellion is not a new idea in this universe. Meet the riskiest rebellion yet. Let’s increase the ante! Introduce two internal rebels and pray that they cancel each other out as internal rebels while applying a quantum leap of rebel logic to the problem, the immediate problem, the external problem. The solution of this larger problem, defeating the most dangerous heresy to date, occupies the space opera slot of this heavily driven plot. Breathless pacing.

The development of the central characters is rich and arrived at through the view of actions and motivations. Lee writes brilliantly. While pulling you down into a whirlpool, Yoon Ha shows you the character acting habitually and thinking beyond those habits. Wishing, as we all have at some point, that things could be different.

Character development appears effortless. Not long into the story, you begin to wonder who people are. Who they really are. The characters emerge, are revealed and transformed, as seen through their actions and their asides. Skillful writing! The protagonist, Cheris, is someone you want to connect with, someone you want to see Cheris win in this complex collapse of civilization. Or the collapse of a complex civilization.

Flashbacks are handled consciously. Come here. Look, a flashback. This character learns. You learn. Each flashback contributes to the development of the story, the universe, and the characters. There is a lot to know in this story. As complex as the mathematic basis may feel, at the beginning, you can understand it, with increasing confidence, as the story develops. There are ongoing expansions of the concepts. With exquisite writing, Yoon Ha brings us along the story arc, no matter how well we meet the mathematics.

Can one trust one’s own rebel? Can one trust?

My advice remains: read this book.