I discovered Cannonball Read at a rather opportune time, because I read Gideon the Ninth recently and until now, I’ve lacked a place to yell about this book as much as I need to. I know a fair bit has been written about it already, and I need to add to it, because this book. This book. My God this book.
The setting and worldbuilding of Gideon the Ninth speaks directly to the part of me who really, really wants to be into Warhammer 40k. I’ve burned whole weekends on the wiki, reading about the setting, but any attempt I’ve made to interact with the actual content of Warhammer 40K novels and games burned out in the slog through a wall of self-serious grimdark.
That’s not to say Gideon the Ninth isn’t dark. Much like Warhammer 40k, we’re in a far, far future where interstellar humanity is ruled by a very powerful, very old, and very absent emperor, where science is indistinguishable from magic, and where there’s a distinct sense that we’re watching the last gasps of a world slowly crumbling away. It’s one of those books that begs to be described as a mashup of other titles, and if I had to choose I’d go with the setting of Warhammer 40k, the scale of Dark Souls, and the tone of John Dies at the End. Half the cast are necromancers and the other half are Cavaliers trained from birth to serve them, which they do with varying degrees of loyalty. People die in this book, and they die hard. This story is set in a world where messing with necromancy on a big enough scale will get you haunted by the ghosts of entire planets, and it opens on a “while you were _____, I studied the blade” joke.
Our main characters are fighter Gideon Nav and necromancer Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus. They’re the only remaining children of the crumbling Ninth House, founded (literally) on the Locked Tomb sealing away a mysterious threat to the empire. When Harrowark receives a letter summoning them to the First House for the unheard of chance to become a Lyctor (the immortal saints who have served the Emperor for ten thousand years), she blackmails Gideon into accompanying her as the closest thing the Ninth House has to a Cavalier.
What ensues is a sprawling, multilayered, twisty-backstabby-political-intrigue plot…filtered through a point of view character who’s missing at least 80 percent of what’s going on, because she’s kind of a dumbass. And I think this is the aspect that might turn people off this book, maybe even more than the meme-heavy humor. Gideon the Ninth doesn’t hold your hand: we’re dropped into the story in the middle of Gideon’s latest scheme to escape the Ninth House and join the army, and you’ve got about 30 pages to get acclimatized to Gideon and her world before Harrow shows up and starts throwing skeletons. Once it starts moving it doesn’t stop, barring a few exposition dumps covering Gideon and Harrow’s shared history, which raise more questions than they answer. Personally, I love storytelling that throws you in the deep end and doesn’t wait to see if you can swim, but I’m sure it will lose some readers.
I was a bit put off early on by the level of sheer animosity between Gideon and Harrow, not sure if I wanted to spend 500 pages with characters who hated each other to that degree. Fortunately, we don’t linger too long in the claustrophobia and vitriol of the Ninth House, and the cast expands into an ensemble of colorful, layered lunatics vying for power. The actual plot beats are a mishmash of political power struggles, secrets, and lore, but the twists and reveals stay rooted firmly in the characters and their relationships, especially Gideon and Harrow. Even if the worldbuilding wasn’t incredibly my shit, that would have kept me reading.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this one (and its sequel, Harrow the Ninth, is something else again.) It won’t be for everyone, but if it is for you, I suspect you’ll emerge from it on the same giddy high that I did. Aspects of the style and humor run right up against the dreaded edge of trying too hard – like trying to create a meme on purpose – but taken all together it works. Okay, so it works less like finely tuned clockwork and more like a lurching, flame-spewing, booze-fueled Burning Man contraption. It’s hard to put a finger on what it’s doing, precisely, but it sure as hell ain’t broken.
(Thank you to Cannonball Read for existing, and thank you if you’ve read this far. Now, please excuse me while I go look up the CBR policy on comics and manga cause I recently decided to catch up on Hunter x Hunter and I also need to yell about that.)