Going into Ninefox Gambit a reader can be forgiven for a bit of confusion. Talk of calendars, formation instinct, exotics and heretical rot make up the bases of everything in this universe but the author pushes right past any sort of introductions, relentlessly throwing the reader right into protagonist Cheris' world. By the end of Ninefox Gambit the same reader can still be forgiven for the same lack of understanding; but they will damn sure understand how each affects each other and the people who use them.
Coming just a few years after Ancillary Justice it is clear that Science Fiction is in a very good place right now. Perhaps unfairly, but with only the best intentions, it is easy to compare Ninefox Gambit to the Leckie's book that took the genre by storm recently. It is the alienness of the not just the world but the very laws governing them; political and physical. The feeling that while readers can read the basic shape of these societies they will never really understand them. And more important, the fact that perfect understanding isn't required because people are still people even in the wildest future.
Cheris is first seen commanding an attack. She is an able commander for the Kel, one of six factions in the Hexarchate. Warfare is dominated by formations; soldier placements can cause calculated effects on reality and make or break battles. The calendars that the Hexarchate live by set the rules for the formations (and many other aspects of life); to deviate is heresy. Cheris shows mathematical skill unmatched, changing formations with speed (though not ease) and catches the eyes of her superiors. This is not necessarily a good thing.
Soon enough she is called up to put down a heresy that threatens the entire Hexarchate. She will have to root it out of a near impermeably fortress and to do so requests the revival of Shuos Jedao; great general and madman being kept alive by science unknown. Tethered to her with methods only a few know she is now reliant on a man who never lost a battle...but 400 years ago murdered the entirety of his own army along with that of the enemy.
This is a fast paced book of near constant warfare but it is not glorying in the bloodshed or battles. The politics Cheris faces running the fleet under her command take up much of her time. Humoring the undead madman while gleaning his advice most the rest. The Hexarchate gives little help; often needed information is withheld or passed on incomplete. When the actual warfare is seen it is short and brutal. Humanity has found ever more impressive ways to kill and the exotics can cause widespread destruction unmatched.
Beneath the brutality and the fog of alien concepts Ninefox Gambit shows plenty of depth. Plenty of humor permeates the text. Glances at the correspondence taken place within the Fortress of Shattered Needles Cheris has been charged to take is often hilarious. But it isn't a forced humor with no purpose, the hints of how something seemingly normal like a democratic vote is seen by society ruled by the calendar is vital to whole story. And it is the necessity of the calendars that drives everything; allowing heresy would result in societal breakdown due to how the calendars are woven in. Yet heresy keeps coming back suggesting that preserving the current society isn't first on everyone's mind. Once the the history of the seventh faction starts to be revealed many of the books most alien concepts, as well as the characters motivations, suddenly become a lot more clear.
While the hurdles of the book's unforgiving start may intimidate this is absolutely a book that deserves every bit of praise received. Fast paced, smart, and surprisingly funny it is a quick read that stokes the imagination. At no point will Yoon Ha Lee hold the readers hand and ease them through the passages. But the reward for finishing is absolutely worthwhile.