Book cover: Ninefox Gambit - Yoon Ha LeeCaptain Kel Cheris is a dedicated soldier with an unusual gift for mathematics. Disgraced by her unorthodox tactics, she is teamed up with disembodied traitor General Shuos Jedao to put down a heretical rebellion or die trying. Can she trust the advice of a warlord who has never lost a battle – but is infamous for slaughtering his own troops?

Control the equations. Change the universe. In Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate, reality is bent by manipulation of ‘calendrical equations’ (I’m just going to call it maths as magic and move right along). The calendar is influenced by belief, reinforced by ritual torture, and brutally protected by ruthless warfare and punitive measures where needed.

Dangerous ideas such as democracy must be put down fast before they spread calendrical rot to adjacent systems. Any change to the mathematics can disable the Hexarchate’s weapons (and defences) and bring down the whole bureaucratic police state.

The Kel military are brainwashed into obedience through carefully-inculcated formation instinct. The right formation – a physical expression of that magical maths – can ward off enemy weapons or cause mayhem any wizard would be proud of. It also forces them to obey direct commands. Captain Kel Cheris can’t be disloyal if she tries – but her talent for mathematics enables her to design new – if heretical – formations on the fly to win battles, blackening the reputation of her entire unit.

Cheris herself is put forward for a more dangerous mission. Challenged to identify the best weapon to bring a heretical fortress at a crucial nexus back into line, her weapon of choice is an undefeated quasi-immortal traitor. Put at the head of a Kel swarm, their programming will force them to follow her orders – unless they decide she has been subverted by the notorious ghost grafted to her shadow. Cheris is not a political animal; Jedao quickly proves that he can manipulate her to get the results he wants whether she intends to co-operate or not.

But he certainly gets results.

And when the best offence – as advised by a known traitor – is to pretend to betray your government and to provide your enemy with enough evidence to convince them that it’s true, it’s anybody’s guess whether the Kel will follow, brainwashed or not.

This is military SF, not usually one of my favourite categories – but it’s written by Yoon Ha Lee, responsible for my favourite read of the year so far, so I was always going to give it the time of day. I nearly gave up within a chapter, overwhelmed by the onslaught of implied worldbuilding. The narrative rarely pauses to explain the setting; you either keep up or let it wash over you in a mesmerising torrent of exotic weapons (carrion guns; erasure cannon; winnowing engines) whose names hint at their horrific capabilities.

I stuck with it and let it wash over me, and rapidly found it difficult to put down. Both Cheris and Jedao are fascinating and engaging characters; the broader setting ticks dystopian boxes with glee, whilst providing you with a point of view (Cheris) that is entirely loyal and dedicated to upholding it. The hints that Jedao is untrustworthy and possibly insane work both ways: what we would consider humanitarian good sense would be considered madness in this society, but we know this isn’t his flaw – he’s responsible for mass murder on an epic scale.

I love stories where I don’t know who to trust. I love stories that encourage me to support monsters, and subvert my morality until their perspective seems reasonable (Takeshi Kovacs, I’m looking at you). I love that Ninefox Gambit sets itself up along these lines, then subverts even those goals. Monster and madman, Jedao goes out of his way to spell out the human cost of warfare. He encourages Cheris to sacrifice her people and chides her for her guilt – whilst hammering home the indefensibility of the regime’s actions.

The faster it’s over with, the fewer people die

As ever, Yoon Ha Lee’s prose has moment of poetic elegance, offset here by blunt trauma. Sly comedy stops the story from getting weighed down by its own darkness and body count. The side serving of quietly sentient droids was a delight (but then I also love stories about emergent AI). And in the end, it still managed to surprise me. There’s so much imagination on display here, scintillating and elusive. It’s like a natural heir to the Culture – black humour, ruthless action, spiky politics, and a deep concern for the human cost.

Welcome to the Machineries of Empire. If Ninefox Gambit is anything to go by, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.

 

****

 

Ninefox Gambit will be released in the UK on June 16, 2016.

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.