by Yoon Ha Lee, 2016
The line between science fiction and fantasy is a hazy one. This is why we have the useful catch-all term “speculative fiction,” filled with sub-genres that fade and bleed into each other.
That said, if I see anyone in a bookstore looking at Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, I'd have to fight the urge to say: “I know it looks like a space opera, but maybe you should think of it as high fantasy. I’m not saying it’s not space opera. Those categories don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”
Then, a moment later: “No, not like Star Wars.”
I feel like saying this in order to to set expectations. It’s not just that the technology used in Ninefox Gambit is well within the “indistinguishable from magic” realm; it’s also that it is exceptionally weird and strange, and the reader faces a steep learning curve to figure out just how things in this universe work. Judging from comments I’ve seen online, more than one reader has found this universe difficult to get into and has left Ninefox Gambit unfinished.
So my suggestion is to approach Ninefox Gambit as a military novel in a very non-Tolkein high fantasy setting, with a magic system that may take a bit of mind-stretching to get one’s head around but is worth it in the end. That way, you’ll find it easier to enter the world of the Hexarchate, whose magic, er, I mean technology depends on the reality-defining effects of their calendar system. Calendar system? Yes indeed. In this world, if we all believe in the consensus calendar, it can be exploited using arcane mathematics to create reality-bending effects.
The Hexarchate, as its name implies, is divided into six primary parts, each led by its own ruthless genius called the Hexarch. (It used to be the Heptarchate, but one division was stamped out centuries ago.) One of them, the Kel, provide the bulk of the Hexarchate’s troops, and one of their specialties that we see in the novel is arranging themselves in various formations that bring about reality-bending effects within the Hexarchate’s calendar system. Our protagonist, Kel Cheris, has better-than-average skills for a Kel grunt at the exotic math one needs to master this, and so she is recruited to help fight an existential threat to the Hexarchate.
A heretical calendar is being propagated by a group that wants to restore the Heptarchate, and they’ve occupied the vast and heavily defended Fortress of Scattered Needles. At this point, I’m going to turn it over to Aidan Moher, who in his Tor.com review explained what’s going on much better than I can: “the heretics (the so-called “badguys”) are twisting this “reality engine” by breaking away from the hive-mind agreement that gives the government, the aforementioned heptarchate (which is the hexarchate by the time Ninefox Gambit begins), authority over the people and high-level technology.”
The Hexarchate’s secret weapon is Shuos Jedao, legendary tactical genius who was executed centuries ago after unnecessarily killing over a million people in the course of winning a battle. Jedao is too useful to rot in the grave, so the Hexarchate keeps his spirit around for when there’s an emergency that requires his skill set. Cheris is to be his vessel.
So now our hero Cheris has an insane undead general who has taken up residence in her shadow (and she is given alarming instructions on what to do if he starts misbehaving), and she is given command of a military force that heads for the Fortress of Scattered Needles. This is a violent and grim novel, and the exotic flavor of the weaponry does not make it any less so. It’s very bloody and a lot of characters die.
It’s also weirdly brilliant, and as it is the first novel in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, the remainder of the story is now on my reading list.