Review: Gideon the Ninth

Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth has had a lot of marketing and buzz prior to its main release this month. Heavily promoted and with lots of people I follow on social media gushing about it, the story had already reached a point of ‘enough already’ for me in August, but that’s the nature of marketing. It’s easy to saturate some people and still have not reached the people you are trying to reach. Additionally, I’m certain a lot of the buzz was genuine excitement from advanced copies.

Even so, picking it as my next thing to read was partly with a cynical eye and an expectation that it wasn’t going to live up to its hype. Does it? Mainly yes, a little bit no depending on what you expected from the level of excitement. The “no” is if you expect the novel to be amazingly original or of great literary importance. It’s not a novel of the emotional or intellectual heft of The Fifth Season. However, I don’t think the marketing was claiming that it was. The “yes” is very much I found it to be just as fun and fresh and exciting as people were claiming it would be.

The setting is a far-future space empire of necromancers. The setting has some of those elements of Gene Wolfe’s New Sun books on the one hand of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series on the other. It is a future of quasi-feudal imperial houses that practice arts that are essentially fantastical but in a setting where there are spaceships and planets. The Ninth House of this empire happens to be the most Goth of a set of nine houses all of which are dedicated to nercomantic arts/technology. Put another way, while the whole empire (ruled over by a ‘Necrolord’) indulges in manipulating ghosts, spirits and dead flesh & bones, it is the Ninth House that is regarded as being the people who are too much of a death cult.

Where Gideon the Ninth departs radically from the Future-Gothic is in its eponymous character. Gideon is a young woman and an indentured servant of the Ninth House. With no nercomantic skill Gideon has been trained as sword fighter adept with a heavy two-handed sword. She is also a foundling with a mysterious past and, due to a terrible accident years earlier, one of only two young people left in the Ninth House. The second person of a similar age is Harrow, princess, heir and defacto ruler of the Ninth House.

Gideon is snarky, sarcastic and full of the cynical naivety of youth. Her primary interests are sword fighting, pornography and finding ways to escape the Ninth House so she can join the imperial army. Although the story is written in the third person, Gideon’s tone, view points and speech patterns dominate the writing style of the story. As such, she is a perfect guide to the strange universe of the book. Rather deftly the story manages to plunge you into this future setting full of distinct arcane practises without much in the way of info-dumps or relying on the alienating techniques used in a stories like Ninefox Gambit where you just have to accept that there is mysterious stuff you don’t get.

The short version is that Harrow has the power to manipulate skeletons and skeletal remains and the Ninth House relies on armies of re-animated skeletons for labour. There is an implication early on that the other Houses (two through-to eight, with the First being the emperor’s own) practice different aspects of nercomancy but we learn about those powers in stages. Necromancers such as Harrow are deployed in the empire’s wars but when they fight they rely on a ‘cavalier’ as a physical bodyguard.

Events conspire to place Harrow and Gideon in a contest of the houses, where delegates from each of the houses must compete (or perhaps cooperate) for the chance of a higher office within the empire. Here the story shifts gear from Gideon’s attempts to extricate herself from the abusive control of the Ninth House and into a murder mystery setting as eight necromancer/cavalier pairs vie to unlock the mysteries of a puzzling mansion/laboratory of the dark arts.

Murder, necromancy, duels, mysteries and snarky remarks proceed apace as plots are revealed and the body count mounts. Eventually leading to a anime-scale showdown of duelling horrors and plots within plots.

Gideon the Ninth only scrapes the surface of its own world building. Gideon herself has little interest in examining the horribly dysfunctional universe she is in. We learn quickly that the Ninth House is horrible and that the other houses are possibly worse and although we learn little about the Necrolord it is hard to imagine that the whole set-up is a benevolent one. However, there are apparently two more books to come and here I’m reminded of Ninefox Gambit again. There were multiple layers of horribleness in the setting that were apparently skimmed over but which were actually setting up for a deeper examination in the following books.

In a similar way, as well as the broader political setting implying horrors, the personal relationship between Harrow and Gideon is manifestly one of abused power. Consequently the path of that relationship and Gideon’s loyalties (mixed as they are) is disquieting. This is particularly true later in the book as the cast of characters in each house eventually reveal their own agendas and Gideon must choose who to fight and who to defend. The setting is one in which hurting or even killing people you care about is a cultural norm or a practical necessity. I didn’t find that aspect of the book too disturbing nor upsetting but I can see that other people may well find it deeply off putting.

Have I answered the question about the pre-release buzz? I think that buzz was very much well earned. Gideon herself is such an engaging protagonist that she draws you quickly into her deeply messed-up world quickly and I found myself immediately warming to her and caring about her well being. A quite different comparison would be with Martha Wells’s Murderbot stories in that empathy with the central character permits the author to pull you into a more complex world using a naive perspective to provide insights into deeper plots going on around them.

It’s also just extraordinarily good fun, especially extraordinary considering the time devoted to pain, possession, gruesome murder and horrible experiments. I love snappy dialogue and I love characters partnered by sarcasm and I love Gideon’s urge to make inappropriate jokes at the wrong moments.

There is a vast ossuary of unanswered question and under-explored themes by the end of the book. I suggested at the start of this review that Gideon the Ninth does not necessarily deliver on deeper ideas but it is better to say that it is too early to tell. For good or ill, this story will be reshaped by its sequels and aspects about the story that I should reserve judgement on until it is done.

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36 thoughts on “Review: Gideon the Ninth

  1. Vlad Taltos and Gideon of the Ninth: compare and contrast.

    Or, is my impression that there are stylistic and thematic parallels with Brust’s Dragaera novels correct.

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      1. @PhilRM: OK, done!
        I’ll circle round to review properly, but basic level is this:
        1. Its a Fun Book!
        2. In terms of style/feel/what-to-hope-for, this is a necromancy-flavored Magical Treasure Hunt. Expect to see Daunting Challenges, and rivals who are concealing Shocking Secrets; expect a lot of chasing after Macguffins, and a Shocking Revelation when the final prize is at hand.
        And, well, expect to see all this but covered in bones.
        3. It’s hard for me to say this worked for me as anything _more_ that that fun, light romp. Plot-wise it does what I just described. Character- and worldbuilding-wise, it felt kind of weak to me — it has a *lot* of flavor, but it really doesn’t get to the point of establishing important concepts or characters in anything more than vague (but flavorful!) sketches. (Unfortunately, IMO, this vagueness also keeps the treasure-hunt part from being excellent — things just aren’t well-enough established to create really intense tension.)

        So that’s where I’d peg it. Really fun as a kind of popcorn book, but didn’t work for me as anything deeper or more intriguing.

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  2. I’ve been waffling over this, and I still can’t decide if it’s likely to be My Kind of Thing or not. I’m not sure the comparison helps, as I seem to be one of the few people on the planet who doesn’t love Murderbot.

    I thought Muir’s “The Deepwater Bride” was hilariously brilliant.

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    1. @Phil: I’m another of those rare people not on Team Murderbot. 🙂

      I pre-ordered “Gideon the Ninth” on the strength of “Deepwater Bride,” which I also loved. I looked at the kickass cover, remembered “Deepwater”, and said, “Yeah, I bet *she* can pull this off.”
      I’m only about 100 pages in, but I’m really enjoying — I can get back to you when I finish, but so far I’d say it’s at least worth a try, and probably something you’ll enjoy.

      I think the Murderbot comparison _is_ apt, because there is a whole lot of “grumpy and murder-iffic protagonist dragged into missions she doesn’t want to go on.” But this iteration works well for me, where Murderbot didn’t — partially just the scope and worldbuilding are much bigger; partially there’s always STUFF going on, much more of a sense of tension and stakes. Partially because Gideon is much more a piece of her world than Murderbot, who feels to me like a wisecracking audience insert.

      Hope this is helpful, if Camestros doesn’t delete this comment for Murderbot Sacrilege. 😛

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  3. Thank you for this. I wouldn’t have known this book or this author existed without this review. From Amazon: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!” —Charles Stross AND “Tamsyn Muir is a horror, fantasy and sci-fi author whose short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award and the Eugie Foster Memorial Award.”

    Not to be mean, but given my own unique perspective, I have to wonder if certain stories and certain authors are not award accolades, not because of the excellence of their stories, but because of who the authors are and the themes of their stories within a very specific social justice matrix.

    Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that a good story can’t be told from that perspective, but does the perspective automatically outweigh good story telling? I’d have to read the book to see for myself.

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    1. Gay protagonists aren’t new or amazing anymore. Sarah Hoyt has had a male gay protagonist in her novels and she certainly isn’t an SJW 🙂
      The novel itself is not something I’d say has any social justice themes. It’s about powerful people plotting against each other. The plot is a murder mystery but with spooky magic – so not a blisteringly original story but I would say the story itself is well told (if you like people being snarky – I can see that might be grating otherwise).

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Considering how much buzz this book got, beginning in January or so, I’m surprised that you missed it so far. still, now you know it exists and if you want to, you can read it.

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    3. I’m only partway through, but so far, I feel like Stross’s “LESBIAN NECROMANCERS IN SPAAAAACE” says way more about Stross (and, perhaps, about what’s popular in blurbs and publicity these days) than about the book itself.

      The true part of the blurb is that the worldbuilding and background are certainly a sort of gonzo mashup of disparate tropes and elements. But the story itself isn’t gonzo; it’s (so far) pretty straightforward intrigue/adventure, just with a refreshing backdrop (and a lot of bones in it).

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Stross seems to be giving (IMHO) weak blurbs these days – e.g. “Curtis Craddock’s debut is a grand tale of intrigue, adventure, and gaslight fantasy in the tradition of Alexander Dumas.” is another recent one that seems to tell you stuff you could work out for yourself from reading the back cover description, and nothing about what (or even if) he liked about the book. In the case of Gideon, the weak blurb is stranger when you compare it to some of the very positive comments he’s posted about that book on Reddit, which IMHO would have made far more convincing sales pitches.

        Going slightly off topic, I’m peculiarly fascinated by cover blurbs which do a weak, or possibly counterproductive, attempt at selling the book, to the extent of wondering whether I should start a single topic Twitter account to post them. Examples of what I mean:

        – WSJ on UK edition of The Collapsing Empire: “Scalzi is one of the slickest writers that SF has ever produced.” . (Google on one definition of the word ‘slick’: “a person who is smooth and persuasive but untrustworthy.”)

        – Stephen Baxter on Steven Erikson’s Rejoice: “An El Nino of a book” (Doesn’t El Nino often cause misery and disaster for thousands of people?)

        – An Ender fan-site on OSC/Aaron Johnston’s The Hive: “The Swarm [preceding book in that off-shoot series] is more similar to ‘Ender’s Game’ than any of the three other prequel novels.” (Translation: of all the many times this dead horse has been flogged, this one is the most derivative yet.)

        Liked by 3 people

      2. John S: I’m peculiarly fascinated by cover blurbs which do a weak, or possibly counterproductive, attempt at selling the book

        I don’t think that this is a new phenomenon by any means, but I do think it’s been getting worse in recent years. I’ve been seeing blurb quotes from Big Name Authors which are worded in ways that make me think, “Oh, I get it, you wanted to help the author out by giving them a positive blurb, but you didn’t want to tell an outright lie about the fact that you haven’t actually read the book, and this is what you came up with.”

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  4. I should add: ‘lesbian’ is obviously the correct term but in a sense it is misleading. Gideon is a kind of fantasy hero archetype who has wandered into a different story: what she wants to do is look at porn and hit things with a big sword. So this isn’t a novel particularly about sexuality or about the culture, beliefs or broader worldviews of women who aren’t heterosexual (aside from those who really want to hit things with big swords).

    Liked by 2 people

  5. James Pyle: “I have to wonder if certain stories and certain authors are not award accolades, not because of the excellence of their stories, but because of who the authors are and the themes of their stories within a very specific social justice matrix.”

    And has this issue ever crossed your mind for a book with a heterosexual romance in it? Because we are still a largely anti-LGBTQ society, authors still have to justify using non-cis-het main characters as a valid choice, seen still as outsiders, and it’s assumed that a lot of readers are mainly interested in the story just because the characters are that way as if that’s the main reason anyone would be willing to read a story with LGBTQ main characters. A story with LGBTQ leads has to prove it’s “compelling” in spite of those leads whereas a story with heterosexual leads never does because cishet leads are supposedly more normal and dominating, the default. We’re not at the point where LGBTQ leads are seen as equal yet, as non-daring and non-threatening.

    And because of that, even though this novel is very well set up structurally and in dialogue for a movie adaptation in the tradition of suspense games/mysteries like Hunger Games, etc., the odds of it getting a movie are much lower because it’s still assumed that most of the audience are bigots and so big budget adventure movies need cis-het leads. However, the odds of it getting something like a Netflix adaptation are higher than they used to be because more and more people aren’t insisting that creators justify the use of LGBTQ leads and because the marketing doesn’t have to be as extensive for such tv projects — less of a “risk”.

    I deeply look forward to the day, if I live to see it, that nobody brings up whether a project with marginalized leads can prove that it was more than a stunt for making those choices, away from the supposedly safe and worthy choices of the non-marginalized that we’ve artificially propped up for centuries. But we’re still in a civil rights transition and not there yet. And so LGBTQ leads will continue to be put on trial for existing and for being enjoyed and have to clear a bar that doesn’t exist for the cis-het leads we’re supposed to accept without thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does seem as if there are more stories featuring LGBTQ protagonists than there used to be, but that’s largely because such stories had a very hard time getting published outside specialty small presses until fairly recently. Even as recently as eight to ten years ago, LGBTQ characters were only tolerated as secondary characters, but not as protagonists, even if – in the case of series like J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhoood or Suzanne Brockmann’s Navy SEAL romances – readers were clamouring for those characters to get their own story. When J.R. Ward finally persuaded her publisher to let her write a Black Dagger Brotherhood novel starring a gay couple, the title was “Lover at Last”. And for all the trouble a noisy minority of them are currently causing, one great achievement of the fanfiction people is that they showed that yes, straight people do want to read about LGBTQ characters.

      As for why more stories featuring LGBTQ characters appear on awards shortlists of late, there are more LGBTQ stories published, so it’s logical that more of them would hit awards shortlists. Also, the nominators for the Hugos, the Nebulas and other awards value novelty and because we haven’t seen stories with LGBTQ characters for so long, much less stories about LGBTQ characters who are allowed to live happily ever after just like heterosexual characters, these stories feel fresher.

      In the past few years, there have usually been two or three stories with LGBTQ protagonists on the Nebula and Hugo ballots every year. That doesn’t seem disproportionate to me.

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      1. CB: “In the past few years, there have usually been two or three stories with LGBTQ protagonists on the Nebula and Hugo ballots every year. That doesn’t seem disproportionate to me.”

        No, it’s not, given that LGBTQ+ folk make up 15-20% of the population. But because they faced massive discrimination, that they have stories being published a bit more often, sometimes getting major marketing pushes now, attention and interest, award nominations, etc., is seen as threatening and suspect, as a stunt rather than people simply giving up prejudice towards these characters or not having had it in the first place and enjoying discovering these stories. And whenever that’s celebrated as a positive change (and awards are a form of celebration) that just goes into being “suspicious” and threatening, probably lower quality in their minds. First rule of marginalization: bring up that maybe they deserve marginalization, that they are inferior and trying to cover that up by pushing their way into spaces they haven’t really “earned.” Instead of what they are doing — breaking down discrimination and prejudice and shifting the culture towards equality and opportunity.

        Seventy-five percent of trying to break down discrimination is climbing over the obstacle course set up so that you can prove that you are not lesser and can be in spaces previously limited or closed to you and others like you and thrive in them. Seventy-five percent having to prove to those used to ruling that you aren’t a fake and a liar, as if they had the authority to make the determination. Because they’re used to having the authority and the floor that institutionalized bigotry has given them, and being told that they are good and righteous to hold that floor. And because they’ve been taught that anyone questioning their authority, their behavior and their advantaged status is an unfair threat.

        Many of my nearest and dearest and some of my friends are LGBTQ. They are creative, caring, smart and effective. But every day they have to waste energy I don’t proving that they have the right to exist as humans, to participate, to have the same rights and most critically, to do well as equal players. To bring their own stories and have those stories be as valid as straight people’s, rather than grudgingly tolerated as maybe once in a blue moon of value and/or entertainment. Every day they have to bust holes through the wall that says I’m normal and worthy and better and they aren’t unless they prove it to cis-hets.

        And what makes it worse is that a lot of the people propping up the wall think they have good intentions. They just can’t see LGBTQ people and their efforts as equal to cis-het folk unless cis-hets sign off on whatever prejudiced litmus test makes them feel more secure. Oh wait, not just cis-hets, but only cis-hets who aren’t pushing for social justice and less discrimination. I should be able to read a LGBTQ story and be happy about it without someone claiming that I only like it because it has those leads, I really should. But most of the wall is still up and we have to keep saying take it down and that we are doing that is declared proof that the wall should stay up. We’re so scary and tyrannical trying to get rid of that artificial obstacle.

        And in case Pyle thinks I’m coming after, I’m not. For all I know Pyle is LGBTQ. I’m just sad. I’m sad that it’s still the reaction to some LGBTQ works doing well. I’m sad that these extra bars are placed on works from marginalized authors and/or lead characters. It’s never going to be fast enough to take them down.

        Anyway the book sounds interesting and I am all for snarky dialogue.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. “given that LGBTQ+ folk make up 15-20% of the population. ”

        Small correction — the best estimates of LGBT demographics suggest around 5% of the overall population is LGBT. Add various types of Q, and you miiiiiiiiiiiight add another 1%.

        I try to be careful with these numbers in debates, because Christian conservative types love to come after any exaggerations in their attempts to nullify every other pro-equality argument.

        I think LGBTs **are** somewhat overrepresented in award-nominated sff right now, compared to actual population figures (I have no idea about the genre as a whole). That’s natural, given that civil rights of all kinds is so hot throughout society at the moment.

        Forgjve typos — I’m still on my phone!

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  6. I found “The Deepwater Bride” to be pretty good Lovecraftian fiction albeit not really my thing. Neither angsty teenagers nor the Lovecraft mythos rank high on my list of things about which I enjoy reading. And the synopsis for this book did not have much appeal for me, either.

    However, your review has piqued my interest, so I may give this story a try at some point. Thanks for weighing in on it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Just finished this book since I couldn’t sleep all night. And I enjoyed it a lot.

    I’d add though that I found the worldbuilding a bit more of a problem than you did though – the worldbuilding of the characters in the plot and of how the necromancer powers worked was marvelous, but unlike say Ninefox Gambit, the general political situation is completely glossed over, which in the end made the mystery antagonist’s revealed plan land a bit with a thud for me: I didn’t really know who the Emperor was or why he mattered or what he was supposed to be doing and thus the end goal, and the cryptic sequel hooks of the epilogue, didn’t really land for me. Like okay, I know who all these characters are and their views and their powers, but how exactly are houses one to eight supposed to work? Who cares if the system is taken down when I’ve never been given a reason to care about the system or even what that system is.

    Whereas with Ninefox Gambit the political situation of the universe – a very relevant part of it all – is explained fairly decently with the evils of the Hexarchate espoused by Jedao in the very first book. That’s then expanded by us getting a look at Mikodez and his dealings with the other Hexarchs in Raven Stratagem, but I had reason to care and be interested in it already. Here I had no clue, which reduced some of the impact….not enough for me not to enjoy the book since the characters are great, but still.

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  8. I really liked this book a lot, but did almost put it down during chapter one because I was bouncing off it. I was very glad I persisted. The writing is crazy good at times to the point of envy.

    In answer to the Brust question — the Brust is a much more realistic and less stylized world, imo. (The Phoenix Guards and 500 Years After are two of my favorite books.)

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