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.