To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general.
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris's career isn't the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.
Cheris's best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.
The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao--because she might be his next victim.
I went into this book without any particular expectations beyond "science fiction". What I got was more creative worldbuilding than I expected and a relatively character-driven narrative, although there are also a lot of battle scenes. The interstellar society — the hexarchate — is very regimented, with people split into six different factions with specific roles. The main character, Cheris, is a Kel captain, which means that she's a soldier in a moderately standard sense of the word, but with some unusual additions based on the science/magic of the civilisation (science/magic in the Clarkian sense). The method of both fighting and societal control is particularly interesting, based on calendars with other cultures/rebels that follow different calendars being heretics. I also liked that the space ships are called "moths".
The opening of The Ninefox Gambit was a little confusing at first. The opening battle scene complete with weird maths as a weapon was a little difficult to get into, but the story quickly shifted to being more about the characters than about the maths or the fighting. That said, I should note that it probably fits most definitions of military SF and that the maths is basically all fictional and you certainly don't have to understand it in the way some of the characters do. A Greg Egan book this is not.
The interaction between the two main characters, Cheris and the ghost (sort of) of the mad general Jedao, is one of the most interesting parts of the book, along with Jedao's backstory. Jedao is an insane traitor who the Kell have kept alive because he has also never lost a battle (if you ignore the one where he slaughtered both sides). Cheris, with Jedao attached to her, has to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles (pictured on the cover, how cool does it look?) from heretics without letting Jedao do anything detrimental or omnicidal. Jedao's powers? He can talk; but he's that good.
This was a surprisingly enjoyable read. The opening made me think it would be a bit impenetrable, but on the contrary, I was soon hooked and didn't want to put it down. (Also, I think I was primed for reading this book at this point in my life: it contains references to board games and Kdramas, both rabbit holes I've recently fallen into.) I recommend this book to fans of far future science fiction and military SF.
4.5 / 5 stars
First published: June 2016, Rebellion
Series: Yes. Book 1 of 3, The Machineries of Empire trilogy
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley