Whoo, jeez, this was one hell of a read!
So you know that bromide, that any scientific technology, advanced enough, is indistinguishable from magic? To a very large extent, one can apply that to science fiction, where if we follow theoretical math and physics to their natural conclusions, the results are indistinguishable from fantasy. Because, y’all, this book works on the tenet that mathematical harmonics are codeable not only into weapons and defense systems, but also into genetics and physical behavior modification. The basis is the “calendar” or the overarching numerical system upon which the Hexarchate, the galactic empire that our heroes serve, hangs its technology, propped up by its citizens’ belief (which is another fascinating deep dive into the intersection between quantum mechanics and human philosophy.) There’s some crazy theoretical math made practical here, and if you’re not familiar enough with or willing enough to concede that these are a plausible, if speculative, use of the concepts, then you’re gonna have a bad time. But if you’re okay with accepting that there’s a future where pure math can be bent into applied, then ooh boy, are you in for a treat with Ninefox Gambit!
I just realized that the entire preceding paragraph makes this book sound like total nerd wankery, but I promise you, it’s a terrific space opera that just happens to use some crazy ass tech as its basis (insert comparison of Yoon Ha Lee to the Hexarchate here, lol.) There’s this Captain, Kel Cheris, who is selected to lead the assault on an important fortress that has sunk into calendrical heresies. To this end, she has been given the weapon that is the shade of the legendary general Shuos Jedao, who was executed and kept in a sort of limbo to be brought back whenever the Kel Command saw fit. Jedao never lost a battle, not even the one where, two hundred years before this, he massacred not only an enemy base but also all of his own troops before being captured and condemned to undeath. Now, he is the greatest weapon the Hexarchate has against a heresy that threatens the entire empire. But is he really working with Cheris or does he have plans of his own?
Mr Lee writes like a man swiftly navigating a tangled, thorny tightrope. It’s a bravura performance that relies on the reader being smart enough to follow along as he plunges you into action and betrayal and scenes from lives and times in chaos. It’s a book that at once praises and despairs of military discipline and loyalty, even as it presents a refreshing view of gender and sexuality, devoid of stifling cultural baggage. Plus, it’s clearly rooted in an East Asian mythos, making for a gloriously original sort of sff. And it has sequels! I’ve already placed a hold on Raven Strategem from my local library and am very excited for the release of the final book in the trilogy this summer. Heady stuff for anyone into theoretical math and philosophy, but especially for anyone who loves a smart space opera.
Also, servitors sound cute as hell and while I’ve never given a darn about a droid, I totally want a servitor.
(Doug’s review is here.)