Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee


Publication Date: 14 June 2016
Publisher: Solaris Books
Format: Paperback
Pages: 319
ISBN: 1781084491

Summary: 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.



Have you ever sat down and simply been blown away by a book? Told yourself one more chapter because it’s 1AM and you have work tomorrow, only to realize it’s now 2:30AM and you’re still reading the damn book? Because that’s what Ninefox Gambit did to me. I was absolutely enthralled by the unique magic system and expansive worldbuilding of this book.

Plot: Compared to the other components of this book, the plot was relatively simple. Relatively. Kel Cheris, with the help of newly revived and probably a madman Shuos Jedao, has been assigned to recapture the Fortress of Scattered Needles from calendrical heretics. What are those, you may ask? I’ll get to that in a minute. This book follows a Cheris as she wages war against there heretic, and while individual battles were hard to follow at times, the overall plot was pretty simple.

Worldbuilding: The worldbuilding, on the other hand, was not simple at all. This book has one of the most unique and fascinating magic systems I’ve ever read. It’s also super confusing at first. The technology in this world is based on calendars. Of particular importance is the observation of holidays and ‘remembrances’. It’s as if the more people observed the 4th of July, the more powerful American missiles get. Of course, observation of holidays not on the High Calendar (ie. Canada Day), leads to calendrical rot and their practitioners (heretics), must be wiped out or assimilated at all costs. Sorry Canada.

The governing body behind this space-faring empire, the Hexarchate, consists of six branches, each vying for power. We learn the most about the Kel (military) and Shuos (intelligence) factions, but we learn a fair amount about the other four and how the six interact. Since Jedao first lived several hundred years ago, his experience with technology and Hexarchate ideology is very different than Charis’ and I really liked that Lee spends the time to describe the changes that occured between their times.

Characters: Unlike some, I enjoyed Cheris’s character. She doesn’t have the strongest personality, but she’s also a self-admitted brainwashed soldier so it’s not exactly expected. However, we get plenty of domestic-ish scenes between her and the servitors, her and Jedao, and information about her past that I could find myself relating to her quite easily. What really makes her character work, however, is her relationship with Jedao. Jedao is hands down my favorite character of this book. He’s charismatic, extremely intelligent and competent, yet has a lot of mystery surrounding him. He lives in Cheris’ head and acts in a mentor-like way, almost fatherly. Their interactions were a large part of the reason why I enjoyed this book so much.

While there were very few major side characters to note, once the fighting started, each chapter tended to start with the perspective of someone on the ground who was likely about to die a gruesome death. I enjoyed seeing the different perspectives of the war and Lee does a really good job giving these otherwise faceless characters personality in a very short amount of time.

Writing: Ninefox Gambit opens by dropping you into the deep end of the worldbuilding pool and expects you to figure things out as you go. For me, learning what new things were and making those connections was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book. There was rarely a full info dump, usually just small explanations of tech to give the reader a basic idea. This is really a book where you can read a sentence, have no idea what any of the words are, come back to it once you’ve finished, and suddenly have it make perfect sense.

The writing style of Ninefox is one of my favorites. While the prose isn’t extremely flowery, it is incredibly math-y and I love it. The technology in this world is very math-heavy and Lee himself majored in math, so the writing reflects that really well. One quote, in particular, stood out to me because it was the first time I’d seen ‘tautology’ used in a non-mathematical context.

“I don’t suppose”, Cheris said to the servitor, “you know what resources I’m allowed to include in my proposal?”

“Any plan you can induce Kel command to accept is permitted,” it said: not quite a tautology.”

Lee also has a way of describing the horrors of war in a beautiful way that makes you forget you’re reading about soldiers being slaughtered in gruesome manners. Really, anytime there was combat, the writing was a mix of gruesome descriptions of people being subjected to the effects of creatively brutal weapons and abstract descriptions of said weapons that it takes you a moment to realize, ‘oh shit, those people died’.

Overall, I rate this book a 5/5. I was blown away by the imaginative worldbuilding and absolutely fell in love with the characters that populate this world. I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel!

/r/Fantasy Bingo 2018 Squares:

  • Novel that was reviewed on /r/Fantasy
  • Novel Featuring a Non-Western Setting
  • Subgenre: Space Opera
  • Novel from the /r/Fantasy LGBTQ+ Database

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