I originally heard about this novel during a sci-fi book club discussion, and while the fact that it starts with someone packing up their dirty magazines sounded a bit odd to me, the number of best of lists and the positive chatter about it made me decide to check out the sci-fi novel about “lesbian necromancers.”
The first part of the novel is a bit slow since it sets up the premise but it still leaves a lot of details to be discovered later on. The emperor has nine houses of necromancers working for him, all of them with slightly different specialties – the first house includes the emperor himself. He has eight immortal Lyctors that have been helping him lead the Empire and wage a war. Gideon was planning her escape from the Ninth House after a cold and miserable childhood but is thwarted by the Reverend Daughter, Harrowhark, heir of the Ninth House. A major event is happening and Harrow needs Gideon before she can let her leave for her own life.
The Emperor has summoned the heirs of the houses with their cavaliers (sworn bodyguards of sorts) for a competition at a secluded location. The only people on this planet are the eight necromancers, their cavaliers and Teacher. The servants are skeletons, presumably controlled by Teacher. There is simply one rule, and the eight pairs must discover on their own how to win and become a Lyctor.
Harrow and Gideon hate each other but their success depends on their ability to become allies. Gideon makes quite a few discoveries about how people view her house after having very little interaction with outsiders, and actually makes friends of a sort with some of the people. However, some of the puzzles they find to solve are very demanding and even life threatening, and when some of the people start ending up dead, the question is whether it is part of the test, whether there is some evil ancient being or if it is one of them.
Even though this novel is set up as a closed circle mystery (between a stage production of And Then There Were None, and the film Knives Out, I’ve been doing a lot of those lately), there is so much more going on – it’s never just a matter of finding a killer but also figuring out what is going on in this place, what they are supposed to solve and how they can become the next Lyctor.
I forgot that there was a character list at the beginning of the novel because it definitely would have been helpful for me to reference while reading – it took me some time to keep the cavalier and the necromancer of the 8th House straight, and it took a while for the 4th House to have any distinct personality. However, while some of the characters were a bit hard to distinguish at times, I was intrigued with just how much information Muir introduced that helped in her overall world building. It’s mostly just hints at things, but it means I am very curious to see what happens in the rest of the trilogy since Muir has definitely given herself a lot to work with for the future – there’s so much to explore about the different specialties of necromancy, the history of the war and the world, and of course, the empire’s current state. Also, necromancy sounds super gross and disgusting, and not just from the playing with the body parts of the dead perspective of it all.