Ninefox Gambit is the first full-length novel set in Yoon Ha Lee’s complex hexarchate universe, previously explored in several short stories. It’s also one of the best military sci-fi (heck, any sort of sci-fi) books I’ve read lately, sporting a compelling mix of espionage, intrigue, space battles, and ground fights.
In this universe, the hexarchate rules the day-to-day celebrations of its star-spanning empire with an iron fist, because most of its powerful technologies depend on the calendar being followed and respected to the letter. Any deviation – heresy – and the power of this tech is distorted or fades, including the faster-than-light engines that bind the empire together.
When an important tactical outpost is taken over by rebels, captain Kel Cheris, a soldier with an aptitude to mathematics, will have to unleash one of the hexarchate’s most powerful weapons in order to retake it: general Shuos Jedao, brilliant tactician, the man who never lost a battle, immortal. Also a madman, a mass murderer, and a conscience without a body.
Though it’s obviously the complex relationship between Cheris and Jedao that stands out the most, Lee’s ability to paint a personality with few, deft strokes makes it so that most characters manage to make a mark, even those who only appear for a few pages.
I must say that I’m also thoroughly intrigued by the mechanical servitors, whose role will hopefully be expanded in the books to come.
On the other hand, Lee doesn’t hold the reader’s hand at all before plunging them into a world of calendars, formations, moths, engines, winnowers, heretics, and dozens of other technical and philosophical concepts. There are all the hints to understand the broadest strokes of how all this works (Lee luckily doesn’t dwell too much on the details, which risk to either become too technical or break the suspension of disbelief), but a reader new to Lee’s work might very well be confused for the first few chapters.