I’ve just picked up the second book in the Machineries of Empire series, Raven Stratagem, almost a year after finishing Ninefox Gambit. I needed the long break because Ninefox Gambit is heavy, and even though the ending sets up for the next book, I still needed a break. That being said, I knew I would be back for more, because Ninefox Gambit was so good.
The plot follows young and promising soldier Cheris. When Cheris breaks the rules in a forbidden-yet-clever way (more on this later), she is punished by her superiors with a dangerous assignment: her body is chosen to play host to the ghost (or spirit, or something) of long-dead General Shuos Jedao. Jedao’s expertise is needed to reclaim the Fortress of Scattered Needles from heretics.
Let’s get into the details via the Scale:
Not offensive to women = 1/1 pt
This book is about war, and there is plenty of violence to go around, but author Yoon Ha Lee skips the gratuitous displays often seen in other representations of war. The Fortress of Scattered Needles is actually a planet-sized space station, and it has the population of a planet as well. Meanwhile, Cheris/Jedao have an army at their disposal. Many, many, many people die over the events of the book, and Lee brings home the horror of war in both large and small scope, from showing us the personalities and individuality of the soldiers and civilians, to the powerful moment when a character realizes his team is the only group of people alive in a district that used to house thousands. Rape victims are treated with respect, not as a fallback to prove the grittiness of the situation.
Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2/2 pts; Passes the Bechdel-Wallace test = 3/3 pts
This is a sci-fi novel set in the far future, and it is completely gender-equal. Cheris is the main character, and also acts as the audience stand-in. As a soldier, she understands the world she’s in, but is thrust into a situation beyond her experience. She has to learn to trust her skills while not even being sure if she can trust the voice in her head.
She deals most intimately with Jedao, of course, since their minds are sharing her body. But the book passes the Bechdel-Wallace test, as well as similar tests for race and LGBT+ rep, easily and many times as Cheris interacts with her superiors, equals, and subordinates. Women characters are distinctive: they have different motivations, are good and evil and brave and cowardly, and are given just as much screentime as male characters.
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4/4 pts
Given that I just said I had to take a long break before picking up the next book, I can’t say that Ninefox Gambit is “entertaining” in a light-hearted way. But it sucks you in. This is partially through the details. The world-building is rich and layered. There’s no better example of this than the magic system. Built on the belief in a 6-integer mathematical calendar, the magic system powers everything from weapons to spaceships. “Heretics” are people who use a different mathematical system, like one with 7 integers, for example. Lack of belief in the 6-integer calendar on the Fortress of Scattered Needles has led to a “rot” which is upsetting the magic system in other parts of the solar system. (Math nerds, don’t think too hard about it.) Though the book is science fiction, the idea of belief powering magic isn’t new to fantasy readers.
Jedao is our other main character, and the slow revelation of what made him turn on the Empire is another mystery that kept me sucked in. Could he be trusted? Would he betray Cheris in the end, too?
Above and Beyond General Media = 5/5 pts
Not much to say here, the book gets an easy full points, mostly for the diversity I mentioned above. Also, for the painful but respectful way war was portrayed. There is a lot of war in science fiction and fantasy, but not all of it is done well. Yoon Ha Lee showed us the tragedy of dying at the hand of an uncaring Empire, while still being respectful of those on all sides of the battle.
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