Of course, I was going to read this book. The hype machine for its release was put into overdrive around August or so, and since then, it’s been relentless. The surrounding Twitter storm, in particular, was something to behold.
While virtually all the talk was positive, this level of hype, as always, made me a bit wary, because such high expectations can be very hard to live up to – especially for an author’s debut novel. However, it was easy to see why people were getting excited, especially over the premise: lesbian necromancers IN SPAAACE sounded like it had all the ingredients of a fun read; and to be honest, it put me in mind of Kiwi Gods IN SPAAACE, which is my mental name for Thor: Ragnarok.
And believe me, I enjoyed the shit out of the mixed genre madness that was Thor: Ragnarok.
So, as I so often find myself doing, I boarded the hype train and got ahold of a copy. And while we could argue until the cows come home as to whether or not Gideon the Ninth lives up to all the hype that has been bestowed upon it, what I can tell you is that Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel is a fun, engaging romp that will appeal to those that like their fantasy and Sci-Fi to have that ‘everything AND the kitchen sink’ feel, and a lot of emotions when you scratch below the surface.
Gideon the Ninth is set in a science fantasy kind of world, where feudal houses rule over far-flung planets under the umbrella of a great space empire. It’s a setting that evokes Star Wars more so than Dune – at least so far. And while all the feudal houses study one form of Necromancy or another, it’s the Ninth House that’s got the reputation for being a little too macabre and cult-like. When the call comes from the Emperor that he’s looking for a new Lyctor (a near-immortal Necromancer), the Ninth house finds themselves scrambling to front up both a suitable candidate and a Cavalier to protect them. While there’s no competition for the former – heir of the household Harrowhark Nonagesimus is an absolute necromantic prodigy – there is some contention over the latter.
The best candidate is Gideon Nav, Harrow’s childhood adversary. While no doubt an enthusiastic fighter, Gideon lacks the refinement of a traditionally trained Cavalier. She’s not even truly of the Ninth House; Gideon’s a foundling with no love for the people who took her in – the novel even starts with her trying to engineer an escape. But with an eerie lack of adolescents within the halls of the Ninth, the house’s options are limited. And because Gideon is so very desperate to make her way off-planet, she lets herself be convinced. If Harrowhark becomes a Lyctor, Gideon will have her freedom.
What follows next is a meet-up at Caanan House, on a whole new planet, where Gideon and Harrow become acquainted with their rivals. At first, everything goes mostly smoothly (if narratively slowly), where a polite little man called Teacher explains the nature of the trials and what people can and cannot do in the half ruins of the First House. The assorted Necromancers and Cavaliers then get a chance to wander the decrepit castle, suspiciously eye their rivals, and try and make sense of the trials they need to go through to order to obtain Lyctorhood.
And just as everyone is getting comfortable?
The murders begin.
And woo-boy, suddenly we’re shifted into a whole new gear!
This is where I really need to go into the ‘everything AND the kitchen sink’ aspect of Gideon the Ninth. We have nobles and their knight-like bodyguards in goth make up wandering around ruined castles in space, exploring medical research facilities and conjuring and fighting skeletons; all while trying to work out how to achieve immortality before someone tries to have them murdered. Hats off to Tamsyn Muir here, because while this shouldn’t work, it absolutely does. A number of the concepts in the book aren’t exactly new; indeed, some feel, to a slight extent, derivative of other works, and you can have quite a bit of fun trying to work out where Muir was getting her inspiration. But what is noteworthy is how she manages to pull everything into place, while developing a real depth and breadth in the worldbuilding at the same time. In the first read-through, there are enough easily overlooked aspects that suggest that we’re only getting a surface glance of what’s going on in this world, and there’s plenty more to come. The kitchen sink aspect has not just been thrown together to be cool; there’s far more depth to the worldbuilding here than meets the eye.
And this alone justifies much of the hype.
Another great part of this book is Gideon herself. One thing that has a tendency to be downright grating in some fantasy and Sci-Fi settings is the out of character use of contemporary language and culture. If it’s handled badly, it can wreck the reader’s immersion in a setting. Interestingly, rather than wring her hands about it, what Muir has decided to do is grab that concern by the ears and toss it out the window.
And it works. Gideon is such a contemporary character that if she were here with us right now, she would be running around posting bad memes from her favourite fandoms on either Reddit or Tumblr. And rather than sticking out like a sore thumb, she sort of gives off a Buffy-esque charm. She comes across as both an absolute Bro and a bit of a baby lesbian at the same time, and the combination of the two is rather delightful.
Gideons loves her sword so much she could frigging marry it.
Gideon tells people who mess with her feelings that if their heart had a dick, she would punch it.
Gideon breaks up rather sombre discussions by telling people that if they rearranged all the letters in their name, they would get something weird like ’Sex-Pow’
Gideon makes ‘That’s what she said’ jokes. More than once.
Gideon also makes jokes about throwing someone a bone. In a castle. Full of Necromancers.
As a reader, I loved her to bits – but in the story, not everyone is taken in with her love of fighting, wisecracking and bicep flexing. And that’s OK, this really helps make her character work. And while she’s obviously very comfortable with her sexuality – her erstwhile escape attempt even had her trying to bribe a shuttle pilot with a copy of her most cherished titty mag – there’s a sort of sweet naivety in how she tries to handle her crushes, which is rather endearing in itself.
This unexpected naivety also bleeds out into other aspects of her life: it’s not until we reach Caanan House that we realise how sheltered her upbringing has left her. Rain is new to her, as is the delight of deserts. It’s too easy to suspect that her joking around may be an attempt to hide how socially awkward she is, and following that, it’s also possible that what little she knows of the greater world was gleaned from the articles in magazines with titles such as ‘Frontline Titties of the Fifth’. Which is depressing, in a way. It’s almost enough to make you want to grab her between sets of push-ups and give her a hug.
While there is a huge cast of Necromancers and Cavaliers that you get introduced to once you hit Caanan House, each with their own unique quirks, Gideon’s strongest relationship throughout the book is clearly with Harrowhark. Harrow’s personality – a snotty, Gothic Hermione who doesn’t believe in friends – sits in stark contrast to Gideon’s smart-alecky, bro-ish ways. And while the two of them deeply dislike each other, they do have two things in common: a miserly upbringing in the cultish Ninth House, and the need to elevate Harrow to Lyctorhood. The development of their relationship is another of one of the books little surprises: and it doesn’t go they way you necessarily expect.
Overall, Gideon the Ninth, while not perfect, especially with the pacing, is a hugely enjoyable debut novel. If you enjoy gothic themed fantasy, mystery and irrelevant humour, but you also like your weird fiction to be emotionally satisfying, this mix might be for you.
(You can tell I liked it: I’ve just written nearly 1500 words on the damned thing!)
One thing’s for certain though – the wait for the next book is going to kill me. I had NO idea this was going to be part of a trilogy until I purchased it – don’t know how I missed that through all the hype!
Another note I’d like to add: I ‘read’ the audiobook version, and I need to give credit to Moira Quirk for her narration. It was damned near perfect, especially her Harrowhark. That being said though, now that I’ve learnt that Tamsyn Muir is originally from New Zealand, I can’t help but wonder how Gideon would go with a Kiwi accent…