The first installment of the trilogy, Ninefox Gambit, centers on disgraced captain Kel Cheris, who must recapture the formidable Fortress of Scattered Needles in order to redeem herself in front of the Hexarchate.
To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general.
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.
Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.
The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao–because she might be his next victim.
Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1) by Yoon Ha Lee
Published: June 14 2016 by Solaris
Source: ARC via Netgalley
I picked up Ninefox Gambit because I liked Yoon Ha Lee’s shorter fiction. I have read some lighter space operatic works before but this is my first heavy military space opera wherein mathematical tactics and strategies are delved into as equally as the character dynamics and politics of the genre. Since I lean more towards the Arts than the sciences, some of the intricacies of the mathematical battle tactics flew over my head. However, I was still hooked into negotiations and the later battles when tensions between characters brew.
I loved getting to know Captain Kel Cheris and the infamous tactician Shuos Jedao as they shared one body. They both have such distinct compelling personalities and intriguing pasts but it was interesting to see where they could find common ground. Like Cheris, I was disturbed by how rational and human Jedao sounded for someone responsible for a massacre. The mystery behind the massacre pulls the reader into Jedao’s past as the action picks up in the latter half of the story. (No spoilers – it is my favourite part of the story).
In between the tense political negotiations and planning, the smaller and lighter humanising moments of the novel shone too. In particular, I liked Jedao’s bemusement over Cheris’ leisure down time activity of watching silly duelling dramas and comedies. The secret transmissions between Heptarch Liozh Zai and Vh were also filled with as much sly humour as politics. I also appreciated that the servers had their own community and politics aside from wryly observing human courtship and politics on the ship. Same-sex relationships are a normal part of the different cultures (Cheris mentions her past girlfriend and Jedao is bisexual). Secret relationships only exist if military ranking prohibits liaisons – this applies to both heterosexual and same-sex relationships. The story also takes place in an Asian multicultural universe.
I’d recommend Ninefox Gambit to anyone looking for a space operatic read with an engaging mystery and intriguing characters. The mathematical and political tactics can be a little confusing (which slows down the pacing for readers like me) but I’m still looking forward to picking up the sequel in the future.
(*Content warning for a flashback to a non-graphic rape scene that affects Jedao in the latter half of the novel.)
Note: Do check out this thoughtful interview with the author Yoon Ha Lee on trans identity in stories.