Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel, Gideon the Ninth is a dark, irreverent, bonkers and beautiful story featuring competing necromancers, duelling cavaliers, and a protagonist with a genuinely unique point of view. When the Emperor invites the heirs to the eight great necromantic houses to compete for a place by his side as one of his immortal Lyctors, Gideon Nav–put-upon servant of the Ninth–begrudgingly accompanies her childhood adversary Harrow to the mysterious Canaan House. There, surrounded by strange rivals from the other houses, Gideon and Harrow must find a way to work together despite their unhappy history if they’re to survive the dangers of the coming trials.
It’s a sort of necromantic haunted house whodunnit, a wildly ambitious science fantasy story set in a world where domesticated skeletons walk dusty halls and duels are fought at swordpoint, while ancient technology lies dormant and wars are fought with a mixture of magic and force of arms. Very little of the world is explained or justified up front, rather being gradually revealed as the narrative develops and characters interact with it. At times Muir’s prose grows a little dense, and she takes her time building up the structures and mechanics of this strange society, but with a foundation of necromancy as the norm it’s sufficiently engaging right from the off to be clearly full of promise. Perseverance is then rewarded with an intriguing sense of depth and history to the setting which hints at more to come even as it draws you in.
Narratively it also starts quite slowly, in the morbid gloom of the Ninth House, as Gideon and Harrow’s relationship is introduced and their mutual hatred established. Gideon’s voice comes through straight away–irreverent and entertainingly blunt, though with a childlike intensity and naivety–and provides something to latch onto early on, but even once events move to Canaan House the pace remains a little sluggish, exacerbated by the introduction of the necromancers and cavaliers from all seven other houses. It’s a lot of names and roles to remember, but while it takes a little while to figure things out, before long the personalities of the necromancer/cavalier pairings is clearly, cleverly visible as the plot develops into a tense, nervy whodunnit. Even as the characters themselves struggle to understand exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, possibilities arise, tentative alliances are made and Gideon’s mind is repeatedly blown by the realities of life outside the Ninth House.
It’s a really clever story all told, packed full of twists and tremendously entertaining action, and once the pace starts ramping up it all escalates into a ferociously exciting conclusion that leaves you breathless, exhilarated and–frankly–traumatised. Central to all of that is Gideon and Harrow’s relationship, which slowly develops from deeply adversarial to something strangely, appropriately different – but always founded on shared connection, despite everything. Gideon’s voice is wonderful, and feels very different to the usual SFF tone, while her personality–me-against-the-world, cocky and confident but strangely sheltered–gives a wonderful perspective to what’s taking place around her. In a world of necromancers, animated skeletons and wide-ranging bone magic, a cynical lesbian with a sword, a strong arm and a sharp wit just makes so much sense. This might not be for everyone, and certainly rewards a little patience, but for those willing to relax into it, there’s a lot to enjoy.
Thanks very much to Tamsyn Muir and Tor.com for sending me a copy of Gideon the Ninth in exchange for this honest review!