For the #ReadersWithoutBorders June readathon I’m currently reading the finalists for the 2020 Hugo Awards best novel and novella. Check out The Worlds of SFF for more information and the chance to win a book or three!
You may not be surprised by my rating of Gideon the Ninth given the hype it has received. But I have to say, I am a little surprised. I mean, I’ve been admiring the cover art just like everyone else, and with a concept like “lesbian necromancers in space” I was anticipating a fun and uncomplicated read. But I wasn’t expecting it to be so well executed. Under the layers of blood, bone, rot and sarcasm, Tamsin Muir writes with a quiet intelligence and cutting humour that has me excited not only for Harrow the Ninth, but for all of her future work.
“…At least in the Ninth House, the way you usually went was pneumonia exacerbated by senility.”
Gideon Nav is an orphan, taken in reluctantly by the geriatric Ninth House, one of eight necromantic societies in the solar system, and probably the most depressing one. Once charged by the Emperor to seal and protect the ominous Locked Tomb, the Ninth House has withered away into obscurity, much like its aging nuns.
“Harrow’s face was bright with elation and fervour. Gideon would have sworn there were tears in her eyes, except that no such liquid existed: Harrow was a desiccated mummy of hate.”
Gideon is lacking in necromantic ability and so spends her time practicing the sword, plotting her escape, and stoking her hate-fire for Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter, arch nemesis and only other young person in the crypt.
“Where I’m going, I promise to piss fidelity all the livelong day. I have lots of fealty in me. I fealt the Emperor with every bone in my body. I fealt hard.”
When Harrow is given the opportunity to ascend to the position of Emperor’s Lyctor by completing a challenge with the other house heirs, her Cavalier Primary turns out to a be a mummy’s boy, and so she forces Gideon to accompany her as a secretly unqualified stand-in, bribing her with the possibility of escape. When they arrive at what I can only describe as a grim AF Hogwarts castle for necromancers, tensions begin to run high between houses as they compete to be the first to ascend.
“We do bones, motherfucker.”
While this premise will have you either bouncing with excitement or raising one, possibly two eyebrows (who wouldn’t raise at least one at titles like ‘Necrolord Prime’), Gideon the Ninth is completely aware of its own silliness and Muir is the first to point this out with her tongue-in-cheek wit. She’s a capable writer who has picked a fun concept for the sake of being damn awesome.
Gideon is the modern action hero you didn’t know you needed in all her sarcastic, dirty magazine-reading, aviator-wearing, great sword-wielding glory. She’s a great character choice to set the tone of this book and make it accessible, despite both her and Harrow being assholes (said fondly).
She also isn’t necessarily my favourite character in the story. Muir has created an impressive cast of 17 necromancers and their cavaliers, each having clear characterisation, something I can’t imagine is easy for a writer to achieve. Their individuality is facilitated by each of the 8 necromantic houses having their own traits, something you can choose to read into or not, however it does further enhance the experience. Luckily, I had the Illumicrate edition which came with 8 House reference cards, otherwise I think I would have been a little lost remembering all of the key players and their agendas (my short-term memory is atrocious).
While I casually enjoyed the first half of the novel and Muir doing her own weird thing, shiz hits the fan about halfway through, and this is when I really came to love her work. I was taken by complete surprise when this weirdo science fantasy story morphed into a murder mystery, then slowly degenerated into a horror fest with moments that definitely made me squeamish. The tension and complex relationships between the characters seemed to materialise out of nowhere, and there were twists and turns in the plot I hadn’t seen coming at all. 97% through the book I still had no idea what further mysteries would be solved, and Muir answered questions I hadn’t even thought to ask.
The tone of this book is distinctive in that there is a lot left unexplained – I have no idea why the houses are all on different planets, how they have spaceships when they essentially live in crypts, or where the hell all the people who aren’t necromantic warriors are hiding. While this may not be for everyone, and it may or may not be expanded on in the sequel, I found that I didn’t really mind being slightly confused as the book unfolded into its own unique thing.
I have no idea what to compare this book to… I guess maybe if Lesbian Vampire Killers had actually been a good film and it had received a book adaptation written by a woman with a penchant for 90s action/horror films… it would kind of but not really be like that. All I can say is that it included all the things I look for in a book – straight up escapism with a unique, imaginative concept that makes me wish I had thought of it first, an unpredictable plot and surprising moments of character depth.