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The novel primarily follows two characters: Cheris, a living soldier with a gift for math, and Jedao, a brilliant, undead general and feared mass murderer. To up the tension between the two, Lee places both characters in Cheris’ body. Together, the two must face a “heretical” enemy that is altering the fabric of reality with “calendrical rot.”
The universe of Cheris and Jedao isn’t well-explained by Lee, who instead throws readers out of the boat to teach them to swim. There isn’t much description of the technology, the different cultures and castes, the boundaries between science and what some of us saw as ritualistic magic (ie. blood sacrifices at holidays), or how seemingly basic things work. Most of our group wasn’t bothered by this approach, and it lead to many comparisons to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. In fact, we enjoyed discussing how we came to understand the mechanics of the story’s setting. For example, some of us interpreted the frequent references to “calendar” as a type of math (ie. instead of calculus, it’s calendar), while others saw calendars as a means of creating a uniform collective unconscious or psychic energy able to affect certain technologies.
While maybe a paragraph explaining the meaning of “calendar” in this context would have been welcome, we respected that Lee probably cut down the page count by half with the approach he took. Lee’s efficient prose reflects the militaristic society and the war genre. Lee never shies away from the gruesomeness of war and the remarkable tyranny of the theocratic-fascist society he creates, which elevates Ninefox Gambit beyond the average military science fiction story. In Lee’s universe, war is not to be celebrated or enjoyed; it is awful, brutal and at least two characters recognize that it needs to be stopped.
Beyond Ancillary Justice, this book opened up a lot of comparisons to some of this year’s other Hugo-nominated books: the absence of variety in species/culture in contrast to A Closed and Common Orbit, the lack of defined gender roles unlike Death’s End, community service as a punishment in the criminal justice system in Too Like the Lightning and the boundaries of magic between science, as seen in Obelisk Gate and our final book club read, All the Birds in the Sky.
While we all doubted that it would win the Hugo, at least one of us thought it was the best novel on the shortlist and we are ready to see where the rest of the series goes.