Thursday, February 23, 2017

REVIEW | Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Publication Year: 2016
Genre: Fiction, Science Fiction
Series: The Machineries of Empire #1
Awards: Nothing Yet
Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller

WHY?:  This book was one of the hottest Science Fiction books of 2016 and got a lot of rave reviews.  I am nothing if not a follower.  It also really sounded like an interesting story.

SYNOPSIS:  This is a military science fiction novel at its core.  Military officer Kel Cheris is paired with the undead soul of a centuries old General to lead a fleet of spaceships to take back the Fortress of Scattered Needles from rebels.  Problem is this undead General has a reputation for being brilliant but also crazy and homicidal so Cheris must navigate the situation very carefully if she is to be successful and come out of the campaign alive.

I think I want to start by talking a little about the reading experience.  I was confused.  A Lot.  Pretty much 50% of the time for the first 3/4 of the book. Lee has imagined a civilization that is complex and detailed and he doesn't spend a lot of time explaining it.  He just jumps right in and asks the reader to keep up and stop dragging him down.   Normally this would have made me frustrated to the point that I would have disengaged with the book but I didn't in this case.  I won't say I was flipping pages at a breakneck speed (or in audio land finding every spare minute to listen) but I was curious and interested and yes, engaged with the book.  

I wondered what would have happened if I was reading rather than listening - would it have been easier to follow? would I have been more prone to drop it?  I'm not sure.  It was definitely a more intricately plotted and detailed book than I usually like to listen to and as a result, I could only listen when I was doing something relatively brainless.  For example, I sometimes will get in some reading while doing data entry at work but this book required too much attention for that.  Pretty much, driving or walking the dogs were the only activities I could do simultaneously!  The narrator was great, though.

So, what kept me engaged, despite being utterly lost?  
1) When boiled down, the plot is actually pretty basic.  If you look at the synopsis above, that is really all that is going on, with a pretty significant side helping of political intrigue, and as long as you can follow that and are interested in the outcome of the siege and intrigued by the mysteries surrounding Jedao (the undead General) than it should keep you reading. It definitely kept me hooked.
2) Kel Cheris is a good solid main character and entry point into the crazy complicated world Lee has developed.  I liked her, I was rooting for her, and her relationship and interactions with Jedao are great.
3) Jedao and his story are fascinating.  He's an unreliable and mysterious presence in the story and I definitely felt driven to find out exactly what was up with him. 
4) Cheris and Jedao:  The two of them together have such a unique, crazy and interesting relationship.

I did also slowly learn to appreciate the world Lee has created.  The society is ruled by a governing body known as the Hexarchate (in Jedao's time it was called the Heptarchate) which has structured the daily lives of its citizens around an intricate calendar.  Following the calendar in just such a manner is somehow tied into and is crucial to their technology and any deviations create problems in the very fabric of the civilization.  The society is also structured by sorting its citizens into different guilds or factions based on their proclivities and talents.  In my simple mind I saw this as a more complicated version of the situation in the Divergent series, lol.  For example, Cheris is a Kel which are the soldiers and officers in the military.  Once you've "enrolled" in your caste or group, you are put into intensive training and even mentally or physically altered to increase effectiveness - for example a procedure is done to the Kel so that they will follow orders no matter what. There are people of course that could go more than one direction and there is an element of choice about which faction you end up in.  For example, Cheris is also very, very good at math, so good that she could have been in numbers nerds faction (I can't remember the fancy name Lee gives them) but instead chose the Kel.  Jedao was first a member of the Shuos  - the devious deep-thinkers that are the tacticians, spies etc... but he switches and became a Kel General and proceeds to never lose a battle.  

That's just a small peek into the incredibly creative and complex world that Lee has created.  In fact that's the easy parts.  The society and technology is fascinating and interesting to puzzle out but I found that if I didn't quite grasp the details of what was going on, I was still okay and had no trouble following the overall narrative.  I've seen it described as Military Science Fiction and Space Opera and it is in fact, a good blend of the two.

It also packs a number of surprises.  Much of the confusion throughout most of the book is not just because it is dense and complex it is because Cheris does not have all the pieces to the puzzle and therefore the reader doesn't either.  Jedao's and even the Hexarchate itself's motivations are confusing and suspect which sets up a big reveal in the last 1/4 of the book.  It doesn't necessarily all become totally clear but the important stuff does and it is a satisfying pay-off for much of the confusion earlier in the book.  It's a shocking, strange and kind of kick-ass conclusion.  

Ninefox Gambit is without a doubt a really impressive work of science fiction.  Lee's world is deep and fascinating and the plot is intricate and ultimately satisfying.  However, I can't give it full marks because of the frustration of confusion throughout much of the book.  The reading experience was not all it could be for me.  However, different readers mileage will vary - many may relish reading slowly and carefully and imprinting all the details.  I prefer to get pulled in and carried along on the tide of a story.  I got some of that but it was a bit of a choppy ride.

FINAL VERDICT:  A complex and intricately plotted military science fiction/space opera extravaganza.  Takes some concentration and can be confusing but is ultimately satisfying thanks to interesting main characters and great ending.  3.5 out of 5 Stars.

OTHER OPINIONS ARE AVAILABLE: NPR | The Book Smugglers | The Bibliosanctum

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