“Cheris was unable to organize 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, its pages upended over the battlefield from horizon to horizon.”
You need something to read. You enjoy science fiction — not exclusively, there’s too much other good shit out there for you to limit yourself solely to one genre — so you look to the Hugo nominees, normally a solid indicator of quality. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee piques your interest. It is a military space opera. You liked Starship Troopers and Old Man’s War and The Forever War. You appreciate a good space opera. You look at amazon and there’s a quote that says the book is “As if Cordwainer Smith had written a Warhammer novel.” (Gareth L. Powell) You don’t know who the hell Cordwainer Smith or Gareth L. Powell are, but you played Warhammer 40k in high school. Remembering hours and hours of bloody desperate battles between space marines and chaos heretics, you are pretty convinced this is the book for you.
But you aren’t rich. Before you buy something, you want to make sure it’s worth your hard-earned money. You look at a few reviews to make extra-sure that it’s a Good Book. Time after time, the reviews say that the book is really difficult to read. But they assure you that the effort is Worth It.
You go to Barnes & Nobles and buy the book, STOKED that you are about to start some sort of ultra-violent military space battle book kind of like 40k but supposedly pretty and with more math.
Then you start reading. It IS a difficult book to read, but you did your research and are prepared. The author thrusts you into the novel’s world without providing explanations or exposition. He combines that full immersion with unusual prose. As you expected, you struggle to make sense of anything, but you turn to online posts by other readers for help deciphering some of the more inscrutable passages. You keep going.
You are introduced to interesting concepts like calendrical rot. You encounter special technology that incorporates familiar concepts from war games like bonuses and multiplier effects. You meet the protagonist(s): the mind of a long-dead general who was executed for being a traitorous genocidal madman — but who has never lost a battle — is implanted into a young infantry captain to lead a fleet against the rebellion that has taken over an important space station. You let the archaic, unfamiliar, complicated words and abstract concepts wash over you. The act of reading this book is like simultaneously meditating and learning a foreign language.
You finish the book. You sit back and think about what you’ve read. And you realize, when you strip the challenge of it away, the book is……bad. Really bad. The intentional difficulty of the book obfuscates the flaws in the book’s world-building, characterization, plotting, description of actions, and pacing. You are convinced that had the book been written in a more easily-digested manner, no one would have given it a second look. The world is not some fully realized, rich universe; it’s more like a thin house of cards that looks impressive but falls apart at any kind of close inspection. The characters other than the protagonist(s) barely exist and are far from interesting. There are four meandering plot lines that sort of come into and out of existence willy-nilly. You cannot visualize the action because the book does not clearly describe what is going on at any given time. For example, you have no idea if a company of soldiers was killed by the enemy, sacrificed as part of a “special attack,” or just scattered. You don’t mind the lack of description of HOW something works. You don’t know how an iPad works; it’s fine if a writer doesn’t explain how a Thingy works. But you do want a clear description of what the Thingy is DOING.
Dejected, you wonder why this book has received such universal acclaim. You don’t understand why there weren’t more warnings about this book’s flaws.
So you write one.
Rating: 2 Stars
I’m annoyed that Ninefox Gambit was marketed as military scifi. Yes, the characters are in the military and there are military skirmishes and weapons and what not, and yes, it is science fiction. But for me, this book was more about psychology and manipulation than being about military scifi. It was a scifi novel version of The Art of War.
I agree with you that nothing in this book is explained, and that was frustrating. I started reading it, got about a third of way through, and knew I was going to have to start it again from the beginning to have any hope of understanding what was going on. So that’s what I did, and it worked, and I ended up enjoying it.
Yeah, I think you are right on about the psychological aspects of the novel. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. There were definitely aspects of the novel that I thought were ok, but I thought the book did a poor job of tying those things together into a narrative. Judging from all the positive reviews and award considerations, my view is probably in the minority.
[…] Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, the first novel of a planned series, is a military space opera. It has received some major acclaim: (1) 2017 Nebula Award nominee (2) 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee and (3) 2017 Locus Award winner for Best First Novel. The novel employs unusual language and immerses the reader — with no exposition — in its strange world of calendrical rot and exotics, of interesting protagonist(s) that fight battles that focus as much on psychology as on weapons. But the book suffers from meandering plot-threads, a lack of interesting secondary characters, and shallow world-building. Other nominees are more worthy of the prize. […]