Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit is one of the rare science fiction novels that feels like it takes place in the future – a feat that is both fascinating and frustrating for a reader. But unlike so many mind numbing tech-heavy reads in this genre, at heart this is a book about emotion: fear, loss, doubt, exultation, drive, and most especially empathy. It makes for a heady – if somewhat confusing – mix.

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Story: Cheris is an officer who has made herself somewhat of an apostate in a ‘calendrical driven’ military society. Unsuited for her chosen caste, she makes a gamble: help her military defeat heretics who have taken over a military base to get back into good graces. To do so, she must take on the contained essence of a genius long-dead general; one whose insanity caused the deaths of millions of his people. In doing so, she will have to find a way to maintain her own mental stability, learn to sacrifice those who trust her, while also coming to understand some hard-to-accept truths about herself and her world.

The book is fairly lean – the writing tight and focused on character development rather than endless discussions of the world or technology. As a result, it is easy to become very confused until there are enough clues given to begin to figure things out. This approach authenticates the setting by not overexplaining it; yet it also drives home that this is a book about the characters and not the sci fi.

As to the accessibility of the book to non-dedicated hard sci fi fans, those daunted by speculative fiction may at first be frustrated. Certainly, Ninefox Gambit is more CJ Cherryh than it is Jack Campbell. In fact, had I not checked the author first, I would have definitely attributed it to Cherryh. But this is also leaner than one of her books and it all begins to make sense the more one progresses in the story. Keeping the page count low helps to make this enjoyable rather than a chore to read.

Most of the book is Cheris’ struggle with the disgraced General Jedao. The ending of the book will likely come as no surprise considering this is a trilogy and clearly things are never going to be as straightforward as they seem. But this first foray into a fascinating world so imaginatively drawn is an extremely accomplished effort. It’s a book deserving of any award in the genre. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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