the Little Red Reviewer

Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Posted on: June 2, 2017

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

published in 2016

Where I got it: purchased new







What’s your opinion on getting thrown in the deep end, buried in terminology, and a world that’s never fully explained? If you answered “I’m good with that”, you’ll enjoy Ninefox Gambit.  If that sentence made you quiver in your seat a little, then maybe this book isn’t for you.  And I’ll admit, I struggled through the first 50 pages or so – the language was gorgeous, almost musical,  with animal, insect, and bird signifiers telling me something. I had no idea what was going on, or what the signifiers were supposed to tell me, but it sure was pretty.   So started the book again, from the beginning, forcing myself to pay close attention to the political maneuverings, unique military terminology, cultural slang, and calendrical heresy.


Calendrical Heresy, that’s one I should explain, isn’t it?  But doesn’t that phrase sound delicious on your tongue? Say it out loud with me: Calendrical heresy. It tastes like apricots and caramel, and looks like leaves falling on a calm pond.   A militaristic society built on mathematics and belief, the technology of the Hexarchate depends on everyone following the same calendar, and observing the same holidays and observances all at the same time. If you are doing something against the calendar, you are heretical, and after the military catches you, you’ll be re-educated. No government wants disruptors, right?   Is it math that makes the technology work? Religious observations and belief? Spirituality? Some pretty deep stuff.


The novel is broken up into three discreet acts. The first act involves Kel Cheris is “partnered” with the digitized ghost of a famous military general.  General Shuos Jedao never lost a battle, but he also slaughtered his own soldiers.  He’s suicidal, depressed, angry as fuck, and now bonded to Cheris’s brain.  Lucky her.  One of the Hexarchate’s most important fortresses, The Fortress of Scattered Needles, has fallen to heresy.   Jedao was known for breaking all the rules, and Cheris is known for following all orders to the letter thanks to her unbreakable Formation Instinct, so they make an interesting pair.


I should explain Formation Instinct a little? Simply put, it’s brainwashing.

The middle section of Ninefox Gambit is the onslaught of the Fortress. This is the longest portion of the book, and to be honest it got a little repetitive for me.  Jedao tells Cheris to do something, she does it, she wonders if he is insane, he talks her around to his point of view. Her staff begin to wonder if his possession of her faculties has gone too far. He pushes her to put the lives of her soldiers at risk, needlessly, she struggles because she can’t not follow orders.  And the chapters go on like this, ratcheting up with claustrophobic space battles and everyone trying to figure out what everyone else is plotting.  Plenty of people die, some of them needlessly.  The conversations between Cheris and Jedao get more interesting as they get to know each other better, but this section of the book got draggy for me.


When Cheris was a grunt, she didn’t much care if she died. She’s Kel, dying on the battlefield comes with the uniform.  But as a jumped up General, she finds herself sending her own people to their death. It weighs heavier when you’re the one making that decision, when a few thousand people won’t be coming home because of the words that came out of your mouth.  Government is a bitch, and management sucks.


At one point, Cheris accuses Jedao of manipulating her, his response is “all communication is manipulation”. This is why high powered type A business people enjoy having a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in their offices.  And yes, of course he’s manipulating her. He’s been pulled out of digital hibernation because he is a slave to a military who quite literally owns him. There’s a reason they tell everyone not to speak to him, that he’s crazy, that you can never believe anything he tells you. Jedao has nothing but his voice and one dominating goal.


The final portion of the novel is right after the attack on the Fortress, and it came very abruptly. Something happens, another thing happens, and suddenly BAM, the action is over. So, while I was happy the big space battle was finally over, the way it ended felt rather abrupt and with little transition.


There is so much political maneuvering happening in Ninefox Gambit, I can’t even. But you’ve got to survive the opening thrown in the deep end and a seemingly neverending space battle to get to the good stuff.  And once you get to the good stuff?  It will absolutely blow your mind. The puzzle pieces come together into a picture that is increasingly fucked up.  Reading the end of Ninefox Gambit felt a little like reading Hunger Games type stories from the other side –  “We’re here to help you”, “why are you fighting us, we know what’s best for you!” type ideas.


A couple things I was thinking a lot about when I was reading the end of Ninefox Gambit, and these aren’t spoilers:


  • When we find out what the people on the Fortress were doing that made them heretical: holy shit!  That is a crime in this world? Well, that explains a lot, actually.  It’s a little funny how Cheris reacts to their activities.
  • I loved how Cheris honored her fallen comrades.  She did something out of the ordinary, but it was the right way to honor them.


There’s plenty of military scifi here, we’re in outer space blowing things up in outer space, for goodness sakes, but throughout the novel, Lee is having a good time taking fantasy tropes, and spray-painting them with science fiction terminology.  The entire book was innovative and refreshing.   Similar to the last act, the end of the novel is a bit abrupt. Not quite a cliff hanger, those who enjoy Ninefox Gambit will be happy to hear the next book in the series will be out in a few weeks.


13 Responses to "Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee"

I loved Ninefox Gambit. And, if I’m honest, I think the complexity of the world building is overstated. I didn’t have a problem following along.

Liked by 1 person

My struggles certainty could have been the environment in which I was reading, as well. In my hand written notes, I have something about it would be best for me if i read this book in large chunks, rather than 3-4 page snippets.


Wow your review is amazing! If I hadn’t already read the book it would have made me want to read it! I’m really excited for you to read Raven stratagem!!! 😀


I had to push myself with the author’s short stories, so this one, as intriguing as it may sound, isn’t for me. Also, I’ve found that sometimes authors become so enamored with their language weaving that they lose plot continuity. This could be such a case.


After rereading your review (and by the way I very much like the apricot and caramel line) I’m more certain than before this is not a book for me.


yeah, I don’t think it would be for you. It’s funny, I was thinking about you while I was reading this book, because I knew you’d leave a very polite comment saying “nice review, not for me”. 😉


the plot is actually pretty tight, but yes, Lee uses the language to throw the reader into the deep end. It felt a little like the opening of a Iain Banks Culture novel, actually, where nothing makes sense for at least 100 pages.


Your like button is broken. It only let me press it once. I also had no problem getting into this one, it was alien but not dense if that makes since. I think I have more problems with 30 characters at once than difficult concepts.

Liked by 1 person

I like your review, and I liked this strange book.

I think if one wants to throw the reader in the deep end like that, one has to *really* make sure one’s world-building is internally consistent. It took me a while to figure out how this society worked, but I never felt like it wasn’t going to gel.


I’m pretty sure I know what you’d recommend if I asked, “Would I like this book?” And you’d be absolutely right. I loved it.

The easy comps for me are Ancillary Justice and Quantum Thief – stuff that twisted SF around to somehow make a totally new, refreshing read. Eventually I’m going to write a review and it will be deep and poignant. I promise.

Liked by 1 person

tweet or e-mail me when you write your review, so I know it is up! 😀


Great review! I love being thrown into the deep end, but I did struggle with this one. I read it all the way through because I wanted to prove myself I could figure things out through sheer persistence, and because I’d been really looking forward to it, and had actually pre-ordered it at my library. And Lee’s prose is beautiful, as you say. I highly, highly, highly recommend his short stories, if you haven’t come across them already–even just for the story where the protagonists turn giants’ bones into mechas.


Part of me really wants to read this and part of me wonders if it will just be a huge struggle and I’ll be out of my depth. The stubborn in me means I will eventually have to just go for it. Seize the day!
Lynn 😀


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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