This book is bad. I’m not going to talk about why the book in general is bad but you should know that I think this going in. I had enough issues with this book that even if the magic system had been revolutionary I wouldn’t have liked it. But the magic system wasn’t revolutionary, it was complete and total nonsense. The rest of this piece is going to explain why.
I’m talking about the book Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. If you haven’t read it this piece won’t spoil much, so don’t worry. I will give you a brief summary, though, if you haven’t: We follow a soldier named Kel Cheris who is chosen for a strange mission by her government the Hexarchate. This mission means that she will have the consciousness of a dead general called Shuos Jedao implanted into her mind; his mind will ride sidecar to hers, which remains in control of her body. Jedao (given name) is responsible for a massacre far in the past which made him the most despicable war criminal in the Hexarchate, but his military prowess meant that they didn’t want to execute him forever. Together, Cheris and Jedao have to try and get their way into an impossible-to-assault fortress.
First I’ve got to step back and talk about spoilers. I said I wasn’t going to spoil much. There is a main effect of the magic that I would classify as a minor plot point that I do have to talk about. If you think you’ll have a good time with this book, the reveal may be a bit deflating, but it’s not character-based in the slightest. The reveal is on the order of finding out a letter marked for “TOD” actually said “TODAY” originally. Anyway, last warning.
Second, I am only reviewing Ninefox Gambit‘s magic system. I’m not touching the rest of the series. I would hope/assume that the system develops further in later books but, for one, I barely dragged myself through this one a second time (it’s bad) and, for two, I think a book should develop its magic (and everything else) enough within itself for me to appreciate it, I shouldn’t need to do homework on a novel. Alright, here we go.
Basically, the problem with the magic in this setting is that the saying “science sufficiently advanced is equivalent to magic” is taken to heart but with the wrong message. This is the charitable reading. The uncharitable reading is simply clumsy and unfocused writing. Though the setting is extremely future-tech, it’s just impossible to describe the “exotic effects” in the story as anything but wish fulfillment magic because we never get a handle on anything. We have people interacting in mechanical ways with the magic — performing equations, finding shapes, plotting trajectories — but we are never given even the slightest shred of context for what the equations mean. You could cut out all the descriptions of how things happen in this book and not lose any understanding of the story.
Reading this book is a lot like listening to jazz musicians talk about playing jazz but not having any grounding in music. If you’re just in the crowd of a show, you can enjoy the music just fine without knowing about music. If you’re listening to them talk about how they played, though, the conversation is totally incomprehensible unless you know about notes or feel or swing. If those concepts don’t mean anything to you, you get the words but you don’t understand how they are put together. Even if the people involved find it very interesting, you can’t do anything with it.
What parts of the context aren’t we given? Fundamental things about the way magic works in this setting are simply not explained. The magic in this story is based around the calendar that a given society believes in, and believing in a different calendar is heresy to the Hexarchate. The calendar has a set number of days in the week, and they also have feast days and “remembrances” (all we’re told is that people are tortured on these days and some people don’t like it). There’s no further information. Take the fact about the days of the week. We are told that changing the days can make one type of magic not work in a specific area, but even rebels against the Hexarchate generally stick with the Hexarchate calendar. Changing the days provides all kinds of problems. Does it provide any clear bonuses? Not really, no.
The first thing you’ll say is that obviously changing the week length protects rebels against the Hexarchate, but it doesn’t. In the first chapter, Cheris has her squad using calendrical swords in a situation where her calendar was not in effect, but the swords still killed who they needed to kill and they got the mission done no problem. This type of malfunction also never comes up again. So what did changing the week’s length really achieve?
One thing I wondered was if having a 6 day week was somehow more stable than having a 7 or 10 day week, or if it powered different types of effects, things like that. The book doesn’t say. If calendars are changing something called “calendrical rot” occurs, but beyond the simple fact that it’s bad we don’t get any information on what it does. Does calendrical rot make people becoming heretics more likely? Does it actually shut down magic in a way that just having a different calendar type doesn’t? We aren’t told. We’re given no information at all.
I hate infodumps as much as anybody and I’m not saying that the issue was that we didn’t get enough infodumps. The issue is that there are no consequences for anything that’s brought up in the story. I’ve already mentioned how calendrical rot didn’t ever seem to hinder anything. There’s also invariant ice, which is built up as a major bugbear of a defensive system because it blocks across calendars, but then they find out – gasp! – it’s not invariant after all! So what was the point of all this? We didn’t get a chance to see how the magic works against something it can’t fight head on, we just turned the set-piece around so everyone could see it was cardboard and then tore it down.
The best example of all these issues in the story is the threshold winnower. It’s played up as a badass weapon that kills anything in an x-mile radius (again, no details!) but we really learn nothing about it other than it can kill a lot of people and sometimes it can shield a small area. That’s it. Here’s the only physical description of it:
The winnower didn’t look like its function. If you didn’t realize what it was, you might mistake it for a pretty kinetic sculpture, all looping wires and spinning wheels and interconnected shafts.
That’s it. Does it shoot anything? No idea. Does it just radiate lethal energy? No idea. Where does it get energy from, how is it powered? Shrug. How many people need to operate it? More than one, I think? How big is it? Don’t know! We’re told that they can break easily but this never matters because every time they need to use it, they have like three or four of them and only one malfunctions, so they always kill everybody when they’re supposed to. I mean, it’s a good job by Hexarchate logistics but it doesn’t tell us anything about the threshold winnower at all.
Basically, this is not technology. It’s not “sufficiently advanced technology”. It’s a fucking 3rd grader’s popsicle structure that goes bang and knocks down all the action figures. It works because its job in the story is to work, not because there’s anything to get about it. Therefore it’s just not interesting at all.
So why is this a problem? I’ve certainly read, and loved, books that don’t describe magic much at all. I’m one of the few you’ll probably ever meet who will defend Tolkien on prose. The issue isn’t simply that the magical properties aren’t described, it’s that the story itself deals with them intimately. To bring back the jazz conversation analogy, what we’re doing in this story isn’t listening to Gandalf and his cool cats playing a standard, we’re listening to them talk shop, and since we never got the understanding of rhythm or melody it’s impossible to enjoy that conversation.
Gandalf and Lord of the Rings magic works because we really don’t interact with it at all. Gandalf just does things and we see that they work, but he never says “hmmm if I move the two pebbles on the right over here perhaps I can see into the future”. It has a wondrous quality precisely because we interact with it almost like it’s a personified act of nature. Even the person doing it might not necessarily understand it, the way that we don’t think about firing up each of our nerves one by one when we want to move our bodies or have a thought. The mysterious nature of the magic is borne out by how it’s treated in the story itself.
The Wheel of Time takes the opposite tack. Channelers like Nynaeve know exactly what they are doing and they do precise things with the One Power to achieve their magical effects. They can take a concept and apply a little fire and a little air and make it something else, and we get the descriptions of how this is done. Obviously, we can’t get a scientific understanding because this is fictional magic. However, we are given clear principles for the magic to stand upon: fire does things associated with heat and combustion and perhaps anger, water with healing and emotion, earth with solidity and cohesion, and so on. We understand how people can gain access to the One Power and how they can lose it, what they can use it on, etc. We understand what society feels about magic and the authority that channelers had. Therefore, when we watch Nynaeve working out how to heal something that’s thought unhealable, the description has meaning for us.
In Ninefox Gambit, we get descriptions of how Cheris is plugging in equations, how she’s interacting with field grids, how she’s worrying about her formations, but again we have no context. We don’t know the extent of what formations can or can’t do, even theoretically. We’re told that certain formations are heretical but never why. We just don’t have any context for the fake detail that the story goes to. And I say fake detail because, like the winnower description above, every description of what’s happening is just vagueries thrown about and technobabble that could just as easily be a part of Star Trek or 2000s Battlestar.
This lack of consequences for the magic system even goes into character reactions. In the first chapter, Cheris discovers that her squad is under an assault that the orthodox formation won’t handle, so she has to change it. Apparently, the formation she’s changing to is slightly heretical, so some people in her squad object. She cuts them out of the formation and they get vaporized. How does this make any sense? Surely, every person must know that their only protection in this situation is staying in formation, which means following the leader or at least the general flow (and these objecters were in the minority). If the whole point is that they’re suicidal (which I don’t believe is the case), why would they commit what’s basically a senseless suicide in the middle of battle? They would definitely not be blamed, even if they had some kind of reprisal later. Also, wouldn’t the people in her squad know that sometimes the formation needs to be changed to compensate for bad situations? There’s never any indication that acting in a different way would ever succeed. So again, the fact that the formation failed etc is just because at that time it needed to fail in order to tell us something about the formations. The problem is that since there are no rules at all ever established, this actually doesn’t tell us anything. What can we glean from this? The soldiers are dumb? Cheris is heartless? There’s really nothing great to pull out of this scene at all.
“Calendrical magic” could be an interesting system, but if it isn’t developed, it’s just a buzzword. We don’t even get scenes of how the masses are having to obey the Hexarchate to keep this going. We’re not around for a feast day or a remembrance. None of the things about this system that could have been interesting are ever delved into. Wouldn’t it have been interesting if Jedao’s influence got stronger on some days and weaker on others? Or what about if they couldn’t fly their ships on Sundays because that was the day of rest and even the spaceships couldn’t be flown, so that changes their whole military strategy? There are interesting ideas you can pull out of this system if you want to. You just won’t get any of those ideas in the book itself.