Ninefox Gambit author Yoon Ha Lee on the joy of factions in SFF

Author Yoon Ha Lee writes about building the world of Ninefox Gambit

Yoon Ha Lee

When I was in college, two things happened to me. (Well, more than two, but.) One, I first got into George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice And Fire books, because I read “Blood of Dragon” in ‘Asimov’s Science Fiction’ and liked it enough to seek out more. Second, I started playing a collectible card game from Alderac Entertainment Group called Legend of the Five Rings (L5R). (L5R has since been acquired by Fantasy Flight Games and is due to be rereleased in another format in another year.)

One of my favorite parts of A Game of Thrones was the section at the back listing the different Houses and their characters, with bonus heraldry. I loved the heraldry in particular and the way that it gave me an instant visual hook to tell the Houses apart. My boyfriend Joe (now husband) was a House Stark fan because of their penchant for Lawful Doomed. I was rooting for Daenerys Targaryen because dragons. I ended up buying a Stark T-shirt for him and a Targaryen T-shirt for myself so we could declare our allegiances. Ironically, because Martin’s partner generously got him to sign the Stark T-shirt (it was a birthday gift), Joe has never worn the shirt for fear of wearing it out.

L5R has Clans instead of Houses, but it’s a similar idea. While L5R was a CCG, one of the things I noticed that differentiated it from Magic: The Gathering was that people tended to pick a Clan and stay loyal to it. Each Clan had its own particular flavor. For example, Joe played the Crab, who were the Empire’s defenders against undead menaces, and who were known for their brutal warriors. A friend of mine played Crane, known for their elegant courtiers and their deadly duelists. Even more interestingly, people stuck with their Clan even when it wasn’t tournament-competitive. When they posted in the L5R forums, they would make up usernames based on the Clan’s particular families.

I was fascinated by the way these Houses and Clans gave people an instant point of identification with some of the characters, and in some cases, even a degree of wish-fulfillment. So when I came up with the world of Ninefox Gambit, I was very clear that I wanted to have factions. I called the government the hexarchate for its six factions, and gave each a different specialty.

Of course, since the hexarchate is a horrible police state, I designed the factions accordingly. That included any special powers they had. For instance, the Kel are the military faction, and when they fight in various formations, they can summon up magical effects such as shields or force lances. But the flip side is that they’re brainwashed. Because their special power relies on everyone doing as they’re told, they’re programmed with something called formation instinct, which is an emotional compulsion to maintain the military hierarchy. A Kel who is given orders by someone higher-ranking ordinarily has no choice but to follow orders.

It gets better. I wanted the Kel emblem to be a form of phoenix, which I called the ashhawk. And this gave me the idea for an even nastier thing to do to my Kel characters. Some of their formations are *suicide* formations–in effect, the soldiers burn up as part of the cost of the magical effect. I decided that originally the Kel had been military elites, because one could only rely on highly disciplined and loyal troops to be willing to do this kind of thing. But then formation instinct was invented, and they became able to use ordinary troops to carry out this type of suicide attack.

Ninefox Gambit also features the Shuos, whose emblem is the ninefox of the title. The beautiful thing about folkloric foxes is that they have a reputation as tricksters in both Western and Far Eastern lore. I grew up with stories of gumiho, which are the predatory and seductive shapeshifting foxes of Korean folktales; you might be more familiar with the Japanese kitsune, who I think are better-known in the West. I picked a fox for the Shuos because they were the intelligence and special ops people, and I wanted to reinforce the idea that they were devious to the point of pathology.

I don’t know that people will find these factions appealing the way I saw people lining up for Houses and Clans in A Song Of Ice And Fire or L5R, given the dystopia. But it was a fun way to focus my worldbuilding!

NINEFOX GAMBIT FINAL COVER

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is available from Solaris Books on 16 June. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.