This is an example of a book title that cannot be improved upon to title the post. Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee, is a smart, complicated, book; the title is pretty perfect.
Ninefox Gambit owes a debt of gratitude to Ann Leckie's marvelous Ancillary Justice, not for anything about the book itself--which is very different in plot, worldbuilding, characterization, and writing style--but for teaching me how to read really complicated scifi world building. There is a mental place I learned to go to while reading that book, where I was taking everything in, whether I understood it or not, and filing it away for later, that served me well with Ninefox Gambit.
I was able to follow the broad strokes of the story, and those of the worldbuilding, very well. (I would love to hear Ada Palmer and Yoon Ha Lee talk about epistemology, by the way.) On a physical level this is a world where mathematics can dictate reality, if you wield it in the right ways. If you set up an appropriate calendar and get people worshiping and sacrificing on the right days, if you arrange your troops in certain formations, you can create different effects--weapons, defenses, tools. In effect, it's magic, but translated completely into a scifi context.
Culturally, you have a society that is built to take advantage of this. Celebrating the correct calendar is paramount, and control of the populace is important. It doesn't feel particularly oppressive to the reader, but it's hard to tell, because our point of view is from within the military. Society is run by six factions--the hexarchate, the government--and each faction has a trait that they bring to the stage. The Kel are the warriors, the Shuos are the spies, the Nirai are mathematicians, and so on. Together there's an uneasy balance of power.
Then comes the plot: a space station, the Fortress of Shattered Needles, has been taken by heretics, and calendrical rot has set in. A soldier named Kel Cheris is singled out as unorthodox enough to maybe handle it. She is given an ally, of sorts--the ghost of a mad general named Shuos Jedao. Three centuries ago he slaughtered an entire space station and his own soldiers, but his genius was too valuable to give up; his mind was downloaded into a kind of cold storage, and they bring him out when they have an unwinnable war. He has never lost.
Now he's hooked to Cheris, talking to her inside her head, and she's commanding a fleet with his advice, and they have to retake the fortress. Okay, so that's a lot of explaining, and I understood everything here. There's a lot of jargon about weapons and formations and ships and how the hexarchate works, but it's true that you can let it roll over you and you find yourself knowing what you need to know.
I realize I don't sound excited in this review; a lot of other people have. The fact is that I didn't feel excited, though. I found the book confusing in a different way, a way that I'm struggling to put my finger on. I think it might have been emotionally confusing, in that I couldn't quite figure out where the book was coming down on the value of human life.
I mean, it's a war book. There are lots of battles and lots of people die, and all the characters we meet are warriors of one stripe or another, whether Kel infantry or Shuos spies or Nirai strategists. There are a lot of deaths, and a lot of moments where a character has to choose a strategy that will result in the fewest or least problematic deaths. For most of the book, it felt like background noise to me, the kind of concern for life that you expect in a novel that is specifically about soldiers--not that life is cheap, but that we call came in here knowing what we were in for.
By the end, however, I've come to believe that this is the main point of the book--wastefulness of life, war as unnecessary. I can't quite figure out what it's about if it's not about that. But the amount of death that every character puts toward that meaning confused me--like, the characters I came to think of as opposed to war were some of the killingest ones, and I couldn't see the lines.
There were a lot of scenes where we followed a character for one scene only, usually into a battle of some sort. And a lot of the characters we meet die horribly, with exotic weapons that work because of mathemagical calendrical technology. "War is hell" is a fair summary of this story, and "politics begets war" is a good underlying message. There are a lot of lessons on how to play with people's minds that I didn't follow, a lot of conversations where one thing is being said and another is meant, and the characters recognize the second meaning--and maybe the narrator even tells the reader what it is--but I can't see how the surface information leads to that result.
So yes, I was able to read this complex science fiction book because Ann Leckie taught me how. And for the most part I got it, and I'm pretty sure that the story that was being told here was a rip-snorting thrill ride. But there was a gap in my understanding of the mental and emotional heart of the story that left me just a bit adrift.
(Thanks to Netgalley for a copy of this book for an unbiased review.)