Autistic Book Party, Episode 42: Ninefox Gambit

Today’s Book: “Ninefox Gambit” by Yoon Ha Lee.

The Plot: Disgraced Captain Kel Cheris is offered a chance to redeem herself by defeating a heretic fortress with the help of the undead General Shuos Jedao. Jedao is a genius who has never lost a battle – but he is also famous for a battle in which he intentionally massacred everyone on both sides. Cheris can’t trust him – but perhaps she can’t trust anyone else here, either.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

Yoon Ha Lee is one of my faves, and I was THRILLED when I found an offhand mention, in his public Dreamwidth journal, that he has an adult diagnosis of autism. (He has other mental health diagnoses, too.) It was such an offhand and ambivalent mention that I contacted him to ask if it was okay with him if I put him on the Autistic Book List. This was very scary since he is a famous author I had never spoken to before. He said yes; information in his public journal is public information. So here we are.

“Ninefox Gambit” is Lee’s debut novel, and is a Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke Award nominee as well as the winner of the Locus Award for Best Novel.

There is no autism in this book. What we do have is an intricate and deeply imaginative dystopian military space opera that I am basically going to spend the rest of this post squeeing about.

The world of “Ninefox Gambit” is impressively weird. Both military strategy and the very structure of this world are based on math. The Hexarchate, an empire that most of the characters belong to, is dependent on what is called a calendrical system. Someone, at some point, calculated that, if society is run in a very specific way – not just the divisions of time and major holidays that the word “calendar” implies, but everything down to the people’s beliefs and social structures – then a new branch of physics opens up. If the Hexarchate keeps control and everything functions according to their calculations, then they are able to use “exotic” technology: weapons that produce powerful, surreal effects.  From a kaleidoscope bomb that instantly multiplies one side’s ships and personnel, to the infamous threshold winnower, which turns every door (and bodily orifice) into a source of deadly radiation.

This gives the Hexarchate a very material interest in hunting down “heretics” – those who observe the calendar differently. Too many heretics in an area can produce calendrical rot, in which exotic effects cease to function – or, worse, function differently.

As one might imagine for a society based on math, everything in the Hexarchate is highly formalized. One of the real joys of this book is the level of detail put into the Hexarchate’s cultural rituals and symbols. Multiple related sets of evocative symbols are used in different parts of the characters’ lives, from the banners and emblems announcing the presence of individual generals, to the system of signifiers which classify the personality of each soldier (Cheris is an Ashhawk Sheathed Wings, which means caution and stability), to the Tarot-like system of jeng-zai playing cards. An incredible level of geekery obviously went into the design of this world, and it’s wonderful.

But “Ninefox Gambit” succeeds as a novel because, amid all the wild detail, the book’s central drama is simple and human. Jedao, because of the way his current existence works, is uncomfortably close to Cheris at all times. Cheris is doing an incredibly stressful and difficult job. Although she is a mathematical genius herself, she can’t win this campaign without Jedao’s skill at strategy and trickery. But she has no idea where his true loyalties lie – or whether, and when, she herself is being tricked. At heart, this book is not only about a flashy calendrical system, but about trust, loyalty, sacrifice, and betrayal.

There are a few disability-related notes to make about “Ninefox Gambit,” both good and bad. Jedao is dyscalculic and suicidally depressed, both of which are depicted briskly and well. Being dyscalculic in a regime that runs on math is a significant disability. Jedao deals with it by relying on Cheris for his math, and asking her to display the results graphically, which she does – as she should – without comment or complaint.

On the other hand, this is also a book that throws around words like “crazy” and “sociopath” fairly liberally. I personally didn’t mind the use of “crazy”; I found it realistic for a bunch of characters in a repressive and dystopian society who have genuine concerns both about how their missions will affect their mental health, and about whether the people they’re working with are thinking in ways that are comprehensible and human. But readers who are more sensitive than I am to mental health slurs may take issue with it. As for “sociopath”, readers who object to the “sociopathic villain” trope will have a problem with Lee’s treatment of several minor characters. Thankfully, this isn’t at all the route that is taken with Jedao himself, whose motives turn out to be complex, interesting, and even a little sympathetic – though you’ll be guessing about them for nearly all of the book.

Overall, I just really like this book. It is a fave. It’s also proof that some of the most stunningly imaginative, major-award-nominated science fiction of our time is by autistic people. Haters to the left.

As a side note, I would never have realized that Yoon Ha Lee is on the spectrum if I hadn’t happened to look at his journal on that specific day. And now I’m wondering how many other famous authors are in that boat. Authors who are autistic, and who are happy to say so in public, but who also aren’t making a big deal out of it, so that if you weren’t already closely following that author, you’d never know.

My Autistic Book List is as comprehensive as I can make it, but I’m not omniscient. If a SFF author is autistic and they’re not on that list, it’s not because I’ve somehow judged them unworthy; it’s because I genuinely don’t know. Readers, if you see any other famous authors casually mentioning in public that they’re autistic, you’ll let me know, won’t you? I will be eager and delighted, more than delighted, to add them.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics Statement: The brief interaction that I describe at the beginning of this review is the only time I have ever interacted with Yoon Ha Lee. I read his book by picking up a copy that I already owned off of my bookshelf and re-reading it. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.