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Book cover of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit is a novel built from numbers. Big numbers. Deep space equations.

If, like me, your last encounter with serious maths was in the 90s then Ninefox Gambit may seem a daunting prospect. Stick with it — all those chains of calculation lead to some exciting places. A fortress of impenetrable ice. A spaceship helmed by an undead General. A world in need of change, revenge and justice. Forget those Statistics textbooks you used to doodle in. This is science fictional maths where there's space travel and explosions for everyone!

Yoon Ha Lee's debut novel takes place in the hexarchate — an ever expanding space empire. The hexarchate consists of six societies united by 'the high calendar'. All six factions observe feast days, rituals and remembrances in line with this calendar. These observances keep the world in order politically and physically. The calendar is also used as a base to calculate "true" mathematics, which lies at the heart of everything from technological innovation to battlefield tactics.

The consequences of deviating from the calendar are grim. As the reader sees when they are dropped into a battlefield scene at the beginning of the book, 'heretical' maths can twist soldiers inside out and rob the air of oxygen. Here, maths can literally change the world:

Cheris was unable to organise her first heart-stop impressions of what had been the rest of the battalion. Feet scraped inside-out next to unblemished boots. Black- and-gold Kel uniforms braided into cracked rib-cages. Gape-jawed, twisted skulls with eye sockets staring out of their sides and strands of tendon knotted through crumbling teeth. A book of profanities written in every futile shade of red the human body had ever devised...

Only the correct maths can ensure the world's safety and stability. According to the Hexarchs, the leaders of the hexarchate, there is only one orthodox and acceptable version of the calendar. Anything else promotes 'calendrical rot', and the Hexarchs will do anything necessary in order to stamp this out. Change is not an option. Change brings weakness and death.

At least, that's what the Hexarchs say. And the Hexarchs are not to be questioned because, yep you guessed it, that way lies doom, gloom, and world-bending misery. Welcome, my friend, to a world of circular thinking and enforced loyalty which few are able to question because of the aforementioned potential for doom, gloom, and world-bending misery.

Ninefox Gambit is as much a work of critique as it is a work of fiction. It takes on complicated, twisted systems of thinking and breaks them apart, with the help of science fiction, so the reader can see just how these systems work.

The world of the hexarchate runs on control and standardization. By policing the high calendar, which ensures stability, the Hexarch's control the world. This can be compared with political strategies used in our own world's history. The English monarchy, for example, has a significant history of forcing religious conformity on to their subjects in an attempt to unite their country. The Tudor and Stuart periods are full of examples of kings and queens pushing one religion over others. With its language of orthodoxy, 'remembrances' and 'heretics' Ninefox Gambit also presents a society bent on using religious conformity as a harmonising strategy. The six factions have been brought together by the need to comply with the central calendar and the rejection of heresy. The hexarchate has achieved a united militarily and a single, all-encompassing cultural. This allows it to continually expand and prosper.

Ninefox Gambit brings out the full horror of colonisation by showing how much planning, subtly, and consideration goes into subduing a nation or a people. That is not to say that colonialism is clever rather that it pays to think of it as calculated. Nations subsume nations with brute force but also with brutal tactics which work on a cultural and psychological level. Until readers understand those tactics they will struggle to understand the full range of objections levelled against colonising nations. Science fiction and space opera is well placed to examine empire and colonialism, and does so on a regular basis. However, it's been a long time since I've read a novel which grapples with teaching the reader about the silent, cultural strategies of expansion rather than retreating into yet another tangled "balanced" conversation about whether the colonists need to be examined as psychologically complex people.

However, as the English monarchy discovered time and again, enforcing a single system of belief isn't the same as truly uniting a society. The hexarchate is plagued by heresy, and is engaged in a never-ending war bent on subduing every society that does not subscribe to their calendar. This war is theoretically a problem — heresy is an abomination which could damage the hexarchate. However, as long as the hexarchate continues to dominate, the war presents an opportunity for growth. If the Hexarchs can justify the war by talking about how heresy damages the world they can keep folding territory into their empire in the service of wiping out heresy. As N. K. Jemisin says in her review, 'the hexarchate exists in a perpetual state of war in which it is too beneficially invested ever to end.'

Key to the hexarchate's war on heresy are the Kel — a military faction that values allegiance above all else. By focusing much of its narrative on the Kel, Ninefox Gambit allows the reader to see how the hexarchate's strategy of enforced conformity is put into practise. The Kel are bound by two key concepts: formation instinct and Doctrine. Each Kel soldier is programmed to follow orders and to conform to a collective will. This is 'formation instinct'; a hive mind compulsion which rigorously enforces a strict chain of command but also provides a strong sense of community. To disobey orders produces great distress. To conform gives the Kel access to a biological sense of belonging and support, which is backed up by rituals which cement the bond between soldiers who belong to the same unit. The Kel receive negative and positive reinforcement on both social and biological levels. This "carrot and the stick" approach strongly urges the Kel to comply at all times.

Doctrine is a little more complicated because it delves right into the heart of this world's mathematics. As far as I understand it, Doctrine is the mathematical system which informs the orthodox calendar of the hexarchate world. The Kel exist in a world made up of six powerful factions and the maths that keeps the world afloat is all based on the number six. The Kel use battlefield formations when they fight; joining soldiers into patterns that I imagined as something like Roman shield formations (but with more glowing swords). These formations are all pre-existing and have been calculated to fall into line with the maths of Doctrine. A break in formation, or a change in formation, is heretical (although there are different degrees of heresy) and will conflict with the Kel's formation instinct in painful ways.

As you can imagine, with these two rigorous, multi-layered control systems in place there is little room for individual thinking among the Kel. Formation instinct is designed to keep the Kel from questioning orders in the heat of battle. This is why the Kel are considered such an effective military force. Known as 'suicide hawks', their formation instinct allows them to push on until a war is won despite the personal cost to themselves and their unit. And their commanding officers rarely find themselves debating decisions, allowing them to make decisive moves with the full support of their troops.

Formation instinct is floated as an elegant military solution. And it is a solution which the novel's protagonist, Captain Kel Cheris, supports. When the novel opens, Cheris and her company are engaged in a firefight against heretics called the Eels. Cheris is a talented mathematician — a rarity among the Kel. In order to keep the Eels from destroying her company, and to capture a precious generator, she builds new formations in the heat of battle. These formations work with 'heretical mechanics'; creating maneuvers designed to combat heretic tactics on their own terms. Cheris' changes to formation go against Doctrine, and this enables one of her sergeants to protest against Cheris' orders.

Here is a great example of Kel double-think. Although it pains her, Cheris is able to go against Doctrine because 'her orders told her to work with the resources she had, so she was going to do exactly that.' This illustrates the way that a Kel can be carefully ordered to be flexible. Cheris' orders provide a loophole which allows her to comply with formation instinct while still breaking from Doctrine; becoming a heretical worker in order to win. It's a very elegant hypocrisy.

Back to the sergeant who is able to stand against Cheris — his challenge counts as disobeying formation instinct and orders, which means he is plumb out of luck. He and the whole of Fourth Company are marked 'as outcasts, Kel no longer.' They cease to belong to the Kel and are left to their own devices in the middle of a heated battlefield. The reader never hears of them again. In this case, chain of command trumps a religious appeal.

This is the first point where, looking back, it becomes apparent that the Kel system of obedience is built on sinister foundations. Cheris often sells the benefits, and the normality, of formation instinct to the reader so convincingly that it can take a while to register that the hexarchate's control over the military is abusive.

Don't get me wrong — Ninefox Gambit quickly makes the brutality of the system apparent. Just before Cheris marks Fourth Company outcasts she thinks about her relationship with its sergeant:

She had eaten with him and high table for years, listened to his anecdotes of service in the Drowned March and at the Feathered Bridge between the two great continents of the world Makhtu. She knew he liked to drink two sips from his own cup after the communal cup went around, and then to arrange his pickles or sesame spinach on top of his rice. She knew that he cared about putting things in their proper place.

These details encourages the reader to see the sergeant as a real person even though he is only present in the story for a few brief paragraphs. The readers never meets him directly or learns his name yet it is clear, when Cheris separates him from the company, that she is sentencing a man with a whole life and history to death simply because he questioned orders. It is a chillingly well-done moment of emotional pain.

If the reader needs further proof that Kel discipline is brutal, when Cheris and her company return from the battle all of her soldiers are 'out-processed' — assessed for heresy and stripped of their Kel status even though they won the fight. They are separated from the Kel community forever. This means the loss of tradition, purpose, and biological connection to a deep reassurance in times of need. Cheris listens to her soldiers declare their 'names and dates of service' in a poignant final ceremony and it is obvious just how much they are losing.

However, it takes a little longer for it to become clear just what an unnecessary and deliberate waste the Hexarchs make of the Kel. Cheris inevitably views the Kel world through the rose-tinted glasses she acquired when she gained access to formation instinct. It is only when she mixes with other characters, and when the book introduces other Kel perspectives, that the reader fully understands the need to go back and take a second look at some of Cheris' stories about becoming Kel. Initially, when I read her story about the first time she was asked to demonstrate a formation I came away with a strong sense that it was about finding community through adversity. Only on closer examination did the full, painful nature of what she was being asked to do, and of how she was being manipulated with heavy drugs and psychological conditioning, sink in:

The formation required that they hold fast. Cheris held fast. She thought at first that the strange frozen calm was the phobia but realized it was the formation. She was taking succour from her massed comrades, just as they did from her. Even when a spider-form paused at the corner of her mouth, even when she was shaking with the effort of not swatting it aside, she would have done anything to avoid breaking formation.


Even after the technicians removed the phobia, Cheris dreamt of small scuttling things eager to crawl through her veins to live in her heart. But she had the tremulous comfort of knowing she wasn't alone.

Cheris' deep attachment to Kel society is part of the genius of Ninefox Gambit. Cheris is good at clearly illuminating the brutality of war in general. However, she is often a narrative smokescreen when it comes to the brutality of social systems. Her attachment to the Kel encourages the reader to view even the worst situations as something unavoidable which eventually strengthens her nation. The idea that the benefits of empire balance against the costs is a common historical viewpoint; especially when history is taught in countries that were colonisers. And I think this partly stems from an inability to imagine a world without empire. This lack of imagination is mirrored and extended in Ninefox Gambit. In Cheris' world there is no viable path but to protect the orthodox calendar. Choice is an anathema to the hexarchate. Choice brings change and deviation. Tragedy, however great and unjust, must be borne to protect the status quo. It is not even an option to question whether there is any other choice but to inflict, and endure, tragedy.

The novel's focus on Cheris' point of view deliberately hides the fact that of course there are alternatives to war, suffering and constant empire building. Ninefox Gambit almost tricks the reader into accepting the necessity of painful, ongoing war. World-weary Cheris is pained by suffering but accepts the need to fight. She dislikes destroying people in order to keep her empire alive but she bends to the inevitability. In fact, Ninefox Gambit keeps Cheris a sympathetic character, and encourages the reader to view the world in the same way that she does, by regularly showing how reluctant she is to inflict pain. She still hurts people and allows them to be hurt but, oh, is she sorry about it.

The novel also provides Cheris with a handy foil in the guise of the ruthless undead General Shuos Jedao. Although her soldiers are separated from the Kel, Cheris herself is retained and saved for bigger things. Her mathematical ability, and her tactics against the Eels, catch the eye of a Hexarch at a crucial time. The Fortress of Scattered Needles has been claimed by heretics and it is imperative that it be restored to the hexarchate's control before the heretic's mathematics poison the wider calendar. Cheris is left to concoct a plan to save the fortress. Her plan (which links in nicely with the plans of some very suspect Hexarchs) is to reanimate the undead General Shuos Jedao and see what he can come up with.

The relationship between Cheris and Jedao is one of the novel's most fascinating elements. After her plan is approved, Cheris awakes to find that Jedao is inhabiting her body. When she looks in the mirror she sees his reflection but when she looks down at her body she still sees herself. Jedao talks to her but no one else can hear him. When she thinks she hears thoughts in his voice. She is constantly battling to compensate for the way her body wants to move now that Jedao is attached to it. Suddenly, Ninefox Gambit becomes a novel about voluntary but uncomfortable possession.

Jedao is a shady character to say the least. Cheris has to guard her mind closely because Jedao is a highly intelligent, untrustworthy killer. Hundreds of years ago he shot his own crew and went rogue. There is always the possibility that he will take Cheris over and attack the hexarchate. If she starts to mistrust him she is ordered to shoot her shadow, or herself, to stop him.

To explain the complexities of Jedao's situation fully would be to spoil one of Ninefox Gambit's central tricks. However, it's safe to say that he is initially presented as a man who is impossible to trust; the guy who makes Cheris do hard things and inflict pain. There is an incident where Jedao manipulates her into getting a crew member to sacrifice themselves. This incident is a double-edged play. It helps Jedao gain control of Cheris. It also helps the narrative establish that Jedao is the bad guy while Cheris is the heroine caught between a rock and a hard place. Cheris is inhabited by a man she can't trust but ultimately needs. And the fact that Jedao is so untrustworthy automatically establishes Cheris in opposition to him; she is character who the reader can trust. Neither of these turns out to be exactly true or exactly false.

The morally conflicted hero, who still blows up the space station and sacrifices the innocent, is a staple of storytelling. Readers are often directed to see a character's internal conflict, before or after they commit an unthinkable act, as a sign that they are still to be treated as a sympathetic character. The bad guys don't feel while they explode children. The good guys do. This is the storytelling logic we grow up with. Lee's novel significantly complicates this idea through the presentation of Cheris and Jedao. Cheris' storyline prompts the reader to ask if sorrow and remembrance are the only options for a soldier. Jedao's storyline asks a lot of hard questions about the worthy of a bloody revolution which aims to minimise unfeeling, state-sponsored slaughter. Stories often ask what is worth fighting for. Ninefox Gambit seems to ask instead what is worth the fighting. How do characters make so much death and pain matter? Can they? Should they? Is it right to press deaths they cause into service of a story about justice? Should they perhaps weave an entirely different kind of battle narrative?

This is where Jedao comes in but I can't really tell you much more than that without spoiling the whole novel. I'll have to make do with saying that Ninefox Gambit is always slowly undermining Cheris and the reader's certainty. However, this isn't entirely obvious until Jedao's long term machinations are made clear. As the novel ramps up, the reader is allowed outside of Cheris' head occasionally and this shows that despite formation instinct not all Kel are the same as Cheris. Then, the novel uses lessons from Jedao, flashbacks, and access to Cheris' enquiring to explode everything the reader thought they knew about this world and this story. It shows that there is a choice to be made; a way of existing that breaks away from bearing tragedy and death stoically in order to uphold a calendar. Change isn't the end, it's the beginning. And with that Cheris' heads off into the sequel to start something new.

Ninefox Gambit reminds me a lot of Kameron Hurley's short story "The Light Brigade". Lee immerses readers in a world of war, blood, and battles but Ninefox Gambit never encourages indulgence in gory spectacle. Like Hurley, Lee writes about war. It takes a while for the novel to reveal that this is its game. Almost as long as it takes Jedao to reveal his own plans. Ninefox Gambit a long-con novel about big picture issues and it's full of maths. Take that as a recommendation if you will.

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