Thursday, May 23, 2024

Book Review: The Dragonfly Gambit by A. D. Sui

Political plotting and elaborate shenanigans done right

To quote a certain famous someone: I love mess. I love emotional tangles, and characters who do things that ultimately hurt themselves because they are complex, chaotic and fundamentally human. I love stories where everyone is a little bit broken and terrible, and they're all clawing about at each other to hurt, being nasty and personal and intimate and delicious.

The Dragonfly Gambit by A. D. Sui is just such a story. We follow Nez, who used to be a pilot in the military of the aggressive imperial juggernaut that "peacefully" took over their home planet, until a crash and a spinal injury put her out of the game, leaving her to make her own way in tech and begin to rebel against the empire while the people she loved and was closed to simply carried on without her. Now she's been pulled back in, to try to solve the crisis of a war the empire definitely isn't losing, honest, at the behest of one of the most powerful people in the military. But Nez does not want to be there. Nez has her own plans.

And this is a story of imperial aggression and resistance, of politics and action, of the way that different people respond to being under the bootheel of such a hegemonising force. There's no prevaricating the message—empire bad. This is an empire whose heir destroyed whole planets in a fit of spiteful pique. We're not aiming for any sense of balance. But we are aiming for complexity.

Because for all that Nez is someone whose planet was ultimately destroyed by the empire, for all that she is working against them, resisting in what capacity she has before she's taken captive… she did also used to work for them. Her friends —her former lover— still do. They share that history, that lost homeworld, and yet respond to the legacy of it in different ways. They still orbit around a shared event, the crash that damaged Nez's spine and her relationship with both Kaya and the empire at the same time. It's a story about different people coming to different conclusions, different actions, about the same context. The bad choices people make.

And speaking of bad choices, it's also about terrible, problematic people being also quite hot, without that ever excusing their terribleness. That second part is important, and one a lot of stories kind of end up missing.

We'll come back to that shortly, though.

To step back a little: political shenanigans can be hard to get right, especially in shorter books. Politics is, fundamentally, complicated because people are complicated. If you make it a simple X action because of Y reason, it's not going to ring true because it's never that simple in real life, and it's incredibly hard to fill in all the details you'd need to capture factors like class and economics and specific histories of place. There's an art to condensing real-feeling political situations into the sort of space that doesn't involve 15 appendices, and it's one that Sui has absolutely mastered here. The key is about the details—we get them. Little incidentals. Off-hand remarks about whys and whos and whens. The sort of things people actually say in conversations to each other, remarks laden with bias and perspective and emotion. And we get these instead of big, sweeping exposition. No one ever sits down and thinks to themself "ah yes, the root cause of the Maguffin Crisis is due to the prevailing weather conditions in Fakelandia, which have led to an economic situation of unparalleled proportions." Everyone comes in with their own knowledge, their own opinions, and so the way they think about things is always biased, always skewed and framed by knowledge we, as the readers, do not have. And Sui just… lets us not have it. Most of the grand-scale stuff simply does not matter to this story. The exact details of why Nez's home planet was destroyed? Irrelevant. That it was, and by whom, and how Nez feels about it are much, much more critical. Such explanation as we get makes Watsonian sense—the sort of thing someone in such a situation would explain, and would think about.

And honestly? We don't need the broad, sweeping details of exactly what this empire is in order to understand why it's bad. All we need is the core we get, the crux of Nez's radicalisation, because this is Nez's story, not the story of the empire as a whole. Sui has boiled it down to the parts that matter, and filled in the gaps with humans and their thoughts and feelings. In the middle of all the politics, it is a story about four people: Nez and the three people she has these emotional, important ties to, and who are each in turned tied to one another, whether by shared history, love, lust, duty or hatred or a mixture of them all. And this, for me, is where it truly shines. Much of the story feels, on the surface, like Nez rattling around between these three people, reacting and causing reactions, feeling. Every bit of dialogue between them feels vital to the story, to their relationship, to something. It's a series of beautifully crafted moments, of feelings steeped in relatable irrationality, despite the distance and unrelatability of the scenario. How do I know how to feel about an ace pilot and an imperial heir? How on earth is this graspable for me? And yet Sui makes it so. She makes each strange, inexplicable moment feel real and true, makes me believe every word, every breath of it emotionally.

And that is very important, because this is also a story that isn't… quite what it seems at the start. A good deal of its charm, its brilliance, is how well it sells what lies it tells (and the truths it keeps, leaving you to wonder which is which). Everything is delivered with such aplomb, such charisma, that you cannot help but fall for things, even when the story tells you to be wary. You just want to slip into the moment, the dialogue, the natural bounce between these fascinating, terrible people.

The Dragonfly Gambit is a brilliant little novella, full of life and energy and emotions hot enough to burn down buildings. Lust or rage? Why choose! Sui captures people and their big-picture problems with deft clarity and easy grace, meaning you never lose sight of where you're viewing the story from, even as it subsumes you. Its politics are extremely well-managed, as is its surprisingly twisty plot full of plotting, making it easy to consume in a single sitting. If it has any fault —and I'm not sure it does— it is that I could have stood a little more time with the fourth character, the one slightly less closely tied into all the drama, as his moments did seem interesting but never let him quite step to the fore like the others. But when the others are as interesting as the ones we got? Well, it's worth it regardless. An absolute hot mess (complimentary). I loved it.

The Math

Highlights: narrator of dubious reliability; MESS, so much MESS; really good political situation in a really small space

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: A. D. Sui, The Dragonfly Gambit [Neon Hemlock, 2024].

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.