Reread time! Massive reread time!
This was all triggered by last years’ Cannonball Book Exchange, where ElCicco was kind enough to send me the three main entries in the The Machinaries of Empire series. I had read the books one by one as they had come out, but I had never sat down and binge-read them before.
And honestly, now that I have done that—while adding the more recently published short story collection—I think the series is even better.
Usual disclaimer: as I am reviewing a whole series at once, I am not going to get too heavily into the plot points of the latter two books, just the first. But since I cannot avoid the latter books at all, I’m not going to guarantee that everything is going to be 100% spoiler-free.
One of the most commonly made comments about the first book, Ninefox Gambit, is that it can be very difficult to understand the first time around, because the author, Yoon Ha Lee, just refuses to hold your hand. This is compounded by the fact that the setting is decidedly very ‘out-there’ and wildly imaginative, so it can be really had to find your bearings. The Machinaries of Empire series is best described as a space opera, with a setting that fulfils Arthur C Clark’s old adage that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So it’s not going to be a walk in the park.
The ‘magic’ here is that people and society can work on changing the laws of physics: but only if everyone goes along with it.
The empire of the series title is the Hexarchate: a highly structured, expansionist society that is run by six factions. And in the Hexarchate, it’s the calendar that dictates the laws of physics. Certain technologies can only be run if certain rituals, feast days and remembrances are kept. If the main empire keeps to the same calendar, most day to day activities run smoothly. And if more ‘exotic’ technologies are required, a different set of rituals can be invoked in order to facilitate their use in local space.
However, if another set of beliefs start seeping into the system, things start slowly breaking down, causing a phenomenon known as calendrical rot. And because so much of the Hexarchate relies on the High Calander, heretics are ruthlessly prosecuted.
And I mean ruthlessly.
At the start of Ninefox Gambit, we are introduced to Kel Cheris: an army captain who commits a close heresy to keep her company alive. This puts her in hot water with the Kel (general army faction), who do not appreciate her dip into quasi-heretical formations, and Cheris is at risk of being shipped off to the Vidona (the, uh, ‘re-education ‘ faction). However, Cheris has a saving grace—she’s considered a math prodigy, and in a society where the physics runs off the careful mathematics of the calendar, she’s considered a very valuable resource. So, instead, she is made an offer: help retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles, which has fallen to the heretics, and she will be forgiven
While Cheris may be a mathematical marvel, she is not considered that highly ranked and does not have many resources at her disposal. To take on such a difficult task, she decides she needs the aid of a very talented general. After a bit of cunning deduction, she comes to the decision that the best candidate for the job is a legendary general who lived serval hundred years ago and never lost a battle. The main drawback to her choice though? He went bugfuck insane and slaughtered his own people, which is what lead to his execution.
Cheris works out that like herself, Shuos Jedao was probably way too valuable to eliminate completely. She also seems to have some idea that she’s being manipulated to make this choice.
On the other hand, the Shuos (sneaky shit-head faction) are delighted that they were able to line all their little ducks in order.
The interactions between both Cheris and Jedao are the highlights of Ninefox Gambit. Jedao, lacking any kind of physical form after his execution, is literally anchored to Cheris, something she was not predicting would happen at all. He is with her where ever she goes. His shadow follows her. When she looks in the mirror, it’s his smirking face that looks back. It’s his mannerisms, body language and accent that Cheris starts adopting. It’s not surprising that after being forced into such close proximity with the disgraced general that Cheris starts developing some sympathy for the devil. And Jedao gets both a body and a mathematician to compensate for his one flaw as a tactical genius: his crippling dyscalculia.
The heads of the Hexarchate have no idea that they are not just playing with fire; they are on the verge of being incinerated.
Ninefox Gambit alone, once you look past the lack of footholds and safety nets, is actually a rather tightly put together story. Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun go ahead and expand all aspects of the story across all dimensions. However, neither book is as difficult to get into as Ninefox Gambit. You scale the mountain with Ninefox, while the next two entries give you an easier ride to the conclusions.
They also introduce you to a wider cast of characters. The fantastic thing about this series is that it gives you characters that are all too believable as inhabitants of a futuristic society with very different norms, but it makes them all seem grounded as well. Both Jedao and Cheris are probably gay; a number of characters are either trans or non conforming (alts), and families often have more than two parents. Note that not much time is ever spent dwelling on any of this, that’s just simply how life in the Hexarchate is. What Yoon Ha Lee focuses on instead is is each character’s little quirks and dramas: One of the major Kel generals is always being picked on by his older sisters. A high ranking official has a habit of naming their cats after assassins. Shuos Mikodez, the head of his faction, is both a dangerous man and a bit of a loon; he is easily distracted (which he is meant to be medicated for), argues with people who don’t like chocolates and obsessively keeps a spring onion plant. He also has a very close—incestuous—relationship with his body double brother, who used to be his sister
(Their parents were aware and just decided that if that kept their two most troublesome kids occupied, good for them! That’s life in the Hexarchate)
As Yoon Ha Lee is of Korean descent, he decided that rather than drawing on western societies for inspiration, he’d prefer to use more Asian ones. You notice this rather quickly with the naming conventions, the commonly used imagery and food. Calindrical swordfighting has a very east Asian martial art element to it and the robot servitors all watch what appear to be K-dramas and Sinetron. It all makes for an interesting change when you’ve been spending most of your time reading western-influenced speculative fiction. Not to say this universe is devoid of Caucasians though; look no further than the antagonistic Hafn.
One thing that reading the whole set of books together really brings to light is how slowly set up the whole story arc is. There are at least two different factions that end up playing a huge role in the last book that really sit around in the background in the first two books—even most of the main characters tend to look over them. Also, it is easy to miss who the true villain of the whole story is during the first part. They’re there the whole time, but like the shark in Jaws, they mostly stay out of focus until the latter part of the story arc.
But they’d definitely appreciate it if I mentioned that they are much, much prettier than the shark.
The last book in the series is a short story collection. It consists of three novellas and may other short pieces of fiction, some only a page or two long. A good deal of them work to flesh out the characters a bit more. But the most important two are The Battle for Candle Arc and Glass Cannon. The first is a prequel of sorts and actually does a better job of explaining how the calendar and calindrical rot works than Ninefox Gambit. So if you’re struggling with the former, skip ahead and read this one. Glass Cannon deals with the aftermath of the main trilogy and is fantastic. It reunites two characters that should have spent more time together in the later books, and really sends the message to the Hexarchate that their troubles are far from over—and they, like the rest of us, should never have underestimated certain groups that kept to the background.
Overall, this is one of my very favourite Sci-Fi series, and it was an absolute blast to read all over again. Yoon Ha Lee has a fantastic imagination and a real knack for adding enough little human asides to keep things interesting.
To finish off, I’m going to leave one of my favourite passages here (with some redactions to preserve the anonymity of the character involved). While this can be a rather dark series, with some rather gruesome elements, it does have a lot of unexpected humour, as this shows:
“First, he needed something to cover what might possibly be long periods of staring off into space […] he sat at his desk and asked the grid to present him with a curated selection of pornography,
“Fox and Hound, people do that to each other?” Was he flexible enough to do those things?
[…] The pornography sampler had moved onto something less athletic… and what on earth where they doing with all those candles? […] Wasn’t the whole room the actors were in one giant fire hazard?
[…] He wasn’t sure what thew costumes represented, if anything. One of them made its wearer look like a giant ant.
I’m not here to shame anyone’s space-kink, but Oh Dear.
Also, do check out the Korean covers, and guess who each of the characters are: