Monday 13 February 2017

Ninefox Gambit

(January 2017)

I think I’m becoming more nostalgic in my middle age, and especially so when it comes to my reading. More and more I find myself harking back to the things I read as young(er) adult, not so much conceptually but emotionally. Part of this is the natural passage of time and experience, I think, but the more comparators you have for something the harder it becomes for it to raise its head above the herd.

So it’s not that I’m reading bad stuff, much of it is very good, it’s just that when you’re younger you have (or at least I had) more emotional capacity to spare, and the shock of the new is both more shocking and easier to come by. I still have exceptionally vivid memories of books I read a quarter of a century ago, but many of the best things I’ve read in the last twelve months have slipped from my mind almost entirely. I am, in truth, finding it harder and harder to make emotional connections with books on the instinctive, gut-felt level that I used to. Maybe I’m just reading the wrong books, but in this instance I really do think it’s not them, it’s me.

Which is all by way of an apology for the fact I seem to be finding myself increasingly clinging to the emotional impact of my younger reading as a touchstone for the present. Which in turn is a way of saying that the opening chapter to Ninefox Gambit felt like easing myself back into a decades old jacket to find that it still fits perfectly: a comfortingly familiar strangeness. The last time I remember being this gripped by the start of a space opera was when I first encountered the Culture; the idea of sentient, god-like spaceships seemed absolutely mind-blowing. It’s a fairly commonplace conceit now, of course, but Lee’s debut novel (following on from some excellent short stories), is marked above all else by its unapologetic strangeness, its sink-or-swim worldbuilding. There are a few infodumps in the opening chapters, but by and large these are focused on the social situation: you’re told where the pieces are on the board, but have to figure out the rules of the greater game yourself.

The board, as far as I can tell, is arranged like this: The galaxy is ruled by a religious autocracy, divided into six specialized and occasionally competing factions. When a strategically significant, and seemingly impregnable, fortress-cum-space station is overrun by heretics claiming the mantle of the long-since-defeated seventh faction, our hero, the disgraced Captain Kel Charis, is given the chance to redeem herself by capturing it. To that end, she revives the long-dead, tactically brilliant, and genocidally insane General Shuos Jedao, who piggybacks her body and consciousness while giving her advice which may or may not be reliable.

Laid out like that, it's standard military SF, and taken plot point by plot point it pretty much is (another reason for that nostalgia, I think—I don't read nearly as much military SF as I used to). The rules of the game, however, are gloriously arcane. The entire hexarcate runs on a sort of mathematical religion that gives dates and numbers in general particular power. How exactly this works is never really clarified, which in many ways makes the comparatively traditional thrust of the story even more important—anything more convoluted would be just too much. I can see how some people might bounce off it, but I loved it; the fully realized characters and an all-too-keen perception of the human costs of conflict complement the strangeness of the setting brilliantly.

This is the first of a trilogy, which might go some way to explaining the only real problem I had with the book. The dénouement is just too long. There's still a lot of more personal faffing for Charis to get through one the main story has run its course. After the emotional dam of the siege is broken, it's asking a bit too much for the reader to stay as invested in what is essentially a game of hide and seek. Still, I can see how this would be necessary for setting up the next installment, which is one I'll definitely be reading.

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