“As if Cordwainer Smith had written a Warhammer novel.” That blurb sold me on Ninefox Gambit. Even so, I almost bounced off of it in the first chapter. In terms of the blurb, too much Warhammer; in terms of my taste in reading, it felt too much like simple-minded war-glorifying fiction. Boom, boom! Pew! Pew! Pew! What’s this doing as a Hugo finalist?
And then it wasn’t.
She had eaten with him at high table for years, listened to his anecdotes of service in the Drowned March and at the Featered Bridge between the two great continents of the world Makhtu. She knew that he liked to drink two sips from his own cup after the communal cup went around, and then to arrange his pickles or sesame spinach on top of his rice. She knew that he cared about putting things in their proper place. It was an understandable impulse. It was also going to get him killed.
Already she was rewriting the equations because she knew what his answer would be.
The sergeant reiterated his protest, stopping short of accusing her of heresy herself. Formation instinct should have forced him to obey her, but the fact that he considered her actions deeply un-Kel was enabling him to resist.
Cheris cut contact and sent another override. Lieutenant Verab’s acknowledgment sounded grim. Cheris marked Squadron Four outcasts, Kel no longer. (pp. 12–13)
Ninefox Gambit is set in a far future amidst a great deal of sufficiently advanced technology. Not just faster-than-light travel, sensors and communications of the sort necessary to make a fast-paced space opera work, but also weapons and effects that the characters call “exotics.” Formations that multiply the force exerted by a soldier’s weapon, other formations that provide enhanced resistance, weapons such as amputation guns or a horrible death multiplier called a threshold winnower. The exotics depend on advanced mathematics, shared indoctrination among soldiers and, crucially, control of an overarching calendar. Mastery of time, in this sense, provides mastery of matter on levels that current science would call impossible.
The price of mastery, though, is ruthlessly enforced orthodoxy. The calendar and the technologies it supports are the basis of the main polity in Ninefox Gambit, the hexarchate. Heresy is a constant threat to the integrity of the calendar, and the hexarchate ruthlessly stamps it out with their military caste, the Kel, supported by the secret service Shuos, and eventually by other castes that bring deviant thinking back into alignment.
Whether or not it’s plausible under our known laws of physics, it’s a system that is internally consistent through the book and a fine framework for telling a story. Lee chooses to tell the story of Captain Kel Cheris, the officer forced in the opening chapter to use unconventional, perhaps even heretical, methods to take an objective assigned to her by Kel Command. Her approach is noticed, for better and for worse, by high levels of the Command. They invite her to be one of seven officers to propose a means for retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, an important calendrical nexus that has fallen to heretics and threatens to infect a large swathe of the hexarchate.
The weapon that Cheris proposes using for this task is neither bomb nor exotic formation; instead, she suggests reviving the undead general Shuos Jedao. As the back cover of Ninefox Gambit puts it, “The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle … The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own.” Kel Command assents to this plan; only much later does Cheris come to think that it may have had multiple motives.
Lee, too, has multiple motives. Ninefox Gambit has a dense and convincing setting; it’s full of crunchy detail, but never overfilled with exposition for its own sake. Lee puts in just enough, and expects readers to keep up. The book is only a tad more than 300 pages, but I didn’t burn through it as quickly as I might because it took time to order the new ideas as they appeared. The density called for time. That setting, though serves the story, or rather the several stories that Lee puts together into the book.
There is Cheris’ story of coming into her own as a commander, the mistakes she makes, the prices she pays, but also how she comes to understand more about the fight she is in, and the polity for which she is fighting. There are Jedao’s stories, both in the book’s present of trying to get Cheris up to speed when time is desperately short, and in several parts of the book’s past, as Lee reveals both his genius and his madness. There is a bit of a story about the servitors, sentient mechanical devices in various animal-like forms; they have their own society, and it only partly interacts with that of the humans who are able to command them. Some scenes also show the siege of the Fortress of Scattered Needles from the rebels’ point of view, a reminder that there are at least two sides in this fight.
Ninefox Gambit is also the story of plucky galactic rebels told from the perspective of an imperial commander. Kel do not question the order of the hexarchate, but a reader cannot help but think about its claims of harmony and superiority. Jedao’s memories show more of how the hexarchate came to its present state — formation instinct was not a part of people’s lives during his first life; the hexarchate was once a heptarchate, before a whole caste was cast down and brought about to true Doctrine — and how it rules. There’s a lot to chew on, amidst the costly battles and desperate plans.
“I see, sir.” The fact that she had been solving the wrong problem with great dedication, if not exactly enthusiasm, was humbling.
“Second: what do you think games do? What are they about?” [asked Jedao.]
The flippant answers weren’t going to be right, but she had no idea what he was after. “Winning and losing?” she said. “Simulations?”
“It hasn’t escaped me that your first answer is a Kel answer and the second is a Nirai [the mathematical caste] answer,” Jedao said. “A Rahal would say that games are about rules, and an Andan would say they’re about passing time with people, and who knows what the Vidona are authorized to say.”
“You’re a Shuos,” Cheris said, “so I presume you’re going to tell me what the Shuos answer is.”
“According to the Shuos,” Jedao said, “games are about behavior modification. The rules constrain some behaviors and reward others. Of course, people cheat, and there are consequences around that, too, so implicit rules and social context are just as important. Meaningless cards, tokens, and symbols become invested with value and significance in the world of the game. In a sense, all calendrical war is a game between competing sets of rules, fueled by the coherence of our beliefs. …” (pp. 190–91)
Games, gambits, unchecked.
Ninefox Gambit was the seventh piece of Hugo reading I have done this year, and also the seventh one I have written about.