Necromancers and their sword-fighting cavaliers star in Gideon the Ninth (2019), Tamsyn Muir’s radically original debut novel, which has been nominated for the 2019 Nebula Award. This science fantasy novel, steeped in an atmosphere of decay and decrepitude, is a mix of space opera and a gruesome treasure hunt that takes place in a spooky, crumbling castle. At the same time, it’s set in an interstellar empire consisting of nine planets, each one ruled by a different House of necromancers.
Eighteen-year-old Gideon Nav is trying to escape her forced servitude in the particularly moribund Ninth House, where she’s surrounded by living skeletons and corpses and near-dead nobles and nuns who pray on knucklebones. Gideon’s escape plan involves sneaking off the entire Ninth planet in a space shuttle that she secretly ordered to come pick her up. Her flight is foiled at the last moment by Harrowhark, a young woman who is the powerful heir of the Ninth House, able to animate skeletons and corpses with a gesture … and Gideon’s lifelong enemy and nemesis. But Harrow offers Gideon a possible alternative way out of her miserable life.
The Emperor has summoned the heirs of the other eight Houses and their prime cavaliers (noble courtiers trained in rapier fighting) to come to the planet of the First House to compete to become the Emperor’s new Lyctors, semi-immortal elite necromancer knights. If Gideon will act as Harrow’s prime cavalier — the actual cavalier of the Ninth House being unable and unwilling to take on the obligation — Harrow promises that she will give Gideon her freedom afterwards. Gideon is an indentured servant, not a courtier, and she’s trained in fighting with a two-handed infantry sword, not a rapier, so it will be a massive challenge. Still, the emperor’s contest presents a life-changing opportunity for both Gideon and Harrow … if they survive.
Gideon the Ninth starts off a little slow but picks up steam steadily, becoming increasingly multi-layered and compelling as it propels the reader toward an intense, heart-pounding ending. The turning point for me was about a third of the way in, when it began to be clear how brilliantly Muir has woven science and future technology into a plot that initially seemed overwhelmingly fantasy. The worldbuilding is stellar, a gore-soaked, moldering edifice that’s eminently suited to the necromancy that is its center.
At the same time, it also became apparent that both the characters and the torturous challenges they were facing were far more complex than they at first appeared. The various ordeals that the necromancers and their cavaliers have to go through to earn certain keys actually have substantive significance. Gideon and Harrow have a complicated relationship built on mutual hatred and snarky insults, but there are guilty feelings and more hiding beneath the skull paint they put on their faces every day. The secondary characters were so numerous – fifteen other heir/necromancers and cavaliers for the other seven competing Houses — that I was having difficulty keeping them all straight, though they each specialize in a different aspect of necromancy and there are several vividly drawn characters among them. (Protip: there’s an enormously helpful list of the Nine Houses and the characters that belong to each of the Houses at the beginning of the book, that I somehow managed to overlook until I was finished with the book.) This is the type of book where a second reading would be really enjoyable and illuminating, where you catch a lot of significant details and nuances that you overlooked on first read.
Gideon the Ninth combines unique worldbuilding, some fascinating twists and turns in the plot, intriguing and unique main characters, and an engaging writing style. I’m excited to dive into the sequel, Harrow the Ninth, which will be published in August 2020.
I get a little wild-eyed when I talk to people about Gideon The Ninth — it’s just so good. There’s the base-level science fiction component of “space-faring lesbian necromancers,” then the sudden and completely convincing swerve into “murder mystery,” never-ending piles of bones and swords (and Gideon’s beloved tiddy mags), dialogue as wickedly sharp as a rapier point, characters I care deeply about despite/because of their sheer creepiness, and then the truly epic climactic battle, all covered in a thick and loving coat of corpse-paint. And there’s so much mystery and intrigue left to unravel by the end, some of which might be addressed in the forthcoming sequel, and (because of course I already peeked at my ARC of Harrow the Ninth; I’m not made of stone) some of which won’t be tackled until THE LOCKED TOMB’s third installment. And the cover art! The cover art, so carefully detailed down to the little smirk on Gideon Nav’s face. I’ve been a fan of Tamsyn Muir’s writing since I discovered “The Deepwater Bride,” and I’m so pleased that she’s as successful at long-form writing as she is at short-form.
Gideon the Ninth is a book that I love unabashedly, that instantaneously spawned a cult following of passionate fanart creators, and which keeps surprising me every time I read it. You better believe I’m excited about doing a proper read of Harrow the Ninth, that I’m on pins and needles waiting for news about the third book, and if I think there’s even one component of this book that might appeal to you, you’ll be on the receiving end of a lot of enthusiastic hand-selling. (Digital hand-selling, these days, but the intended end result will be the same.)
Charles Stross memorably described Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir thusly: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!” It makes a great blurb for some folks, I’m sure, but it put me off reading the novel for months. It was only after Gary Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan recommended it on the Coode Street Podcast that I finally picked it up.
The very beginning, however, once again almost kept me from going any further. It opens with the title character, Gideon Nav, who is not particularly sympathetic despite the fact that she is seeking an escape from indentured servitude, normally a situation that would bring forth all kinds of good feelings from readers. Gideon seems like a shallow brat, more interested in her dirty magazines than anything else. Shortly, however, she is involved in a negotiation with her mortal enemy, Lady Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, which she more or less loses, thus setting the plot in motion. Hang in there: by Chapter 7, a little more than 50 pages in, Harrow and Gideon, who are both just teenagers, arrive at the House of the First for a competition between Houses Two through Nine to become lyctors, immortal companions to the Emperor. The competition is to uncover the best necromancer and cavalier pairs, and Harrow, a gifted necromancer, needs Gideon, a gifted fighter, to be her cavalier.
The Nine Houses appear to be an artifact of a once-spacefaring civilization, each representing a different planet or habitat. Everything is strange about the House of the First — the Emperor’s House — and the necromancer/cavalier pairs who each represent one of the other houses. It is beautifully weird and mesmerizing for the reader. The necromancers and their cavaliers begin working on solving problems set for them, dangerous problems that usually pose a mortal threat for one or the other or the both of them. And suddenly, contestants start turning up dead. And one begins to wonder exactly what “winning” means for this contest, and whether the battle is worth the prize.
As these contests proceed, and Harrow and Gideon find an awkward way of working with one another, their characters fill out — not always likable, but always fascinating. We learn some mysteries about how the world works, the houses, and especially the Ninth House — mysteries that seem likely to show up in later books in this series.
From the time the characters gather at the House of the First to the end of Gideon the Ninth, I was barely able to stop reading. I had to know what was going to happen next. This combination of science fiction, fantasy, mystery and thriller was amazingly rich in character, setting, plot and especially world building. I agree with Jana that the dialogue is as sharp as can be, with plenty of snark that kept me smiling even as the corpses piled up high.
I’m with Tadiana in finding it difficult to tell the players without a scorecard, simply because there are so many of them, and they all seem to have at least two names; do take advantage of the Dramatis Personae at the front of the book to tell who is who. But with that resource at hand, there is nothing but enjoyment to be had here. I loved Gideon the Ninth so much that I put it on my Hugo ballot this spring, and I’m delighted that it’s been nominated for both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards. It’s gaspingly original and pure fun to read.
Yep, this is awesome. Snark, and a country-house mystery IN SPAAACE, and an inventive setting that’s a lot of fun to puzzle out, and OMG-did-she-just-go-there gore. Definitely keep one finger on the Dramatis Personae.
I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth. “Who-hoo, so gory!” didn’t thrill me, and frankly — color me shallow — I’m not a fan of necromancy as a magical system. I read it anyway, and, spoiler alert, I was wrong. I really, really enjoyed it.
Kelly pointed out that a large part of the book is an Agatha-Christie-style country-house murder mystery, very well done. And “so gory” had a qualifier. It’s so inventively gory that even I had to be impressed. The scientific approach to necromancy, with each House having a specialty, and the space-opera aspect added spice to the mix. The book is twisty and clever once it gets rolling, and it gets rolling when Gideon and her necromancer, Harrow, whom she hateloves, arrive at Canaan House, the rotting castle that reminded me once in a while of Gormenghast.
I did struggle. Did someone — Tadiana? Terry? — mention the need for scorecards? There are at least sixteen characters that have to be tracked, at least at first (thank goodness some of them die! It’s like a deadly American Idol). Many of them have two or even three designations. And the rules of this decadent, stratified, hierarchical society got tossed out, on several occasions, seconds before the thing happened that demonstrated that rule. It was a little hard to keep track.
In places, I struggled with the worldbuilding, too, maybe more than I needed to. Gideon loves porn magazines and comic books and I never understood how she could have gotten ahold of either one in the place she grew up, not when she had never before in her life had a heated beverage. I didn’t understand why an empire with interplanetary travel furnishes their military only with edged weapons. While the sword and knife fights were breath-taking, I really didn’t understand them. I think I may be working too hard there, and in both cases the reason is simply that these things are cool.
In any event, I think I’m contractually obligated to love a book that contains the clause, “ … who had no cause but to be gentle with her, handling her as though at any moment she would explode into wet confetti giblets.”
I thoroughly distrust the ending (in the best possible way), I am hooked on the mystery, and I am biting my fingernails awaiting Harrow the Ninth, due out in August.
Sometimes as a reviewer you just have to accept that you are out of phase on a book. That for whatever reason, what draws so many fans to a work has little to no attraction for you. That’s the case with me and Tamsyn Muir’s LOCKED TOMB series, beginning with Gideon the Ninth and worsening with the sequel, Harrow the Ninth. The first book elicited rave reviews both here (from reviewers whose critical eyes I certainly respect) and elsewhere and landed on a slew of best of the year/awards lists. While I didn’t think it a bad book — I’d call it a good book with flaws — I definitely didn’t get the acclaim. And given my experience with the sequel, it’s not a series I’d recommend, though clearly I’m an outlier, so there you go.
To be brief, I found the first 40% or so (based on my Kindle) to be relatively unengaging and plodding. Some of the characters are interesting, but many felt too thinly drawn for me to care about. There’s a rich originality and sort of macabre joy to the necromancy aspects, but beyond that the worldbuilding seemed, excuse the pun, skeletal. There’s such a narrow focus and setting that after reading the book I have zero idea of how this society works, why they use swords, who they’re fighting, etc. While some of that can be waved away as “coming in book two” (but it actually doesn’t), not all of it can be. The locked room/who’s killing people mystery is a classic story, and Muir certainly creates tension through it, but then it eventually became a bit repetitive to me, and part of me felt like I was reading a Dungeons and Dragons module DM’d by Agatha Christie. The relationship between Gideon and Harrow has its moments, but feels like it glosses over way too much way too easily. Finally, the ending feels like it throws a lot out there, but not all of it sticks. On a sentence level, and a big-picture concept level, I can definitely applaud Muir’s talent. But though I ended up thinking Gideon the Ninth was a good book, I still wasn’t sure if it made up enough ground from that long, slow start. Unfortunately, I found Harrow the Ninth to be a far worse reading experience, so I won’t be continuing with the series. Apparently, I’m the only one.
Gideon the Ninth is really cool, a many-ringed circus of battling necromancers, warring houses, sardonic blademasters, and a nifty murder mystery. Tamsyn Muir is also very much a writer’s writer, startling with clever word choice and gleefully grotesque imagery even as the overall tone hews toward a kind of winking pop-culture archness in the vein of recent fantasy-comedies like Kings of the Wyld. If that sounds like a lot to keep in the air, especially for a first-time novelist, you’d be right, and it says a lot about Muir’s talent that she manages it so deftly.
Our plot is as follows: Gideon Nav, a cocky and rebellious would-be soldier from the extremely goth Ninth House of some galactic empire or another, has been press-ganged into service as the bodyguard for one of her least favorite people in the world: Harrowhark, current heiress of the Ninth House. Harrow and Gideon have been at each other’s throats for years, but now they’re forced to work together as the Emperor summons various noble heirs to a haunted and forsaken castle, for a mysterious contest to see which — if any — of them will become his new exalted lieutenants in the galaxy. Harrowhark wants power, and Gideon just wants her freedom (well, kind of), but before either of them can obtain their desires, they’ll need to survive a deadly game of cat and mouse with the other noble heirs and their sworn swords.
There’s a bit of a workshopped flavor to this novel. That’s not a bad thing, but the text does display some of the predictable hallmarks of being partly written for an audience of other writers. The prose is polished to a fine sheen, full of subversive turns of phrase and well-worded imagery. It’s also a touch showy in a way that will delight readers who like to think about the construction of what they’re reading, but something may be lost on those who merely want to progress through the narrative. The dialogue is slick and modern, punkish in its refusal to affect the kind of quasi-timeless diction that dominates more self-serious speculative fiction. Gideon barely recognizes guns and refers to sheets of paper as “flimsies,” but casually drops modern slang and sly pop culture references. The consequent style is magnificent to behold, though world-building is largely sacrificed to achieve it. Pacing is rapid, the plot full of sudden reveals, and the And Then There Were None-style murder house feels appropriately gothic and threatening, groaning gustily and disgorging dark secrets on the regular.
Taken as a whole, the novel is lots of fun. I shot through it in one evening, which rarely happens anymore, and I particularly enjoyed the character of Gideon. It’s not that she’s out to break the mold — if you’ve seen any of the other sarcastic, effortlessly talented swordfighters in this genre, you’ll have a general idea of what to expect with Gideon — but Muir’s genuinely funny lines and refusal to turn Gideon into Ye Olde Fantasy Badass allowed the character to blossom into something more interesting than the usual overpowered sword-monkey. Readers are invited to laugh both with and at Gideon. She’s intensely fallible, which makes her relatable.
That does bring me to another criticism, though: Gideon is introduced as a snarky, woman-of-action protagonist in a funny, swaggering introduction that she doesn’t quite live up to for most of the rest of the book. In fact, she ends up being a fairly passive protagonist on the whole. It looks like an example of an uneasy fit between character and plot — Gideon’s an acerbic jock trying to navigate a cerebral thriller, and so she ends up drifting into the role of the Watson, mostly facilitating and observing the drama around her rather than bringing it about. Her various Chekhov’s Guns are eventually (and even enjoyably) allowed to fire a broadside, but for a while she feels like she’s just being kept out of the way.
Putting aside the above, though, Gideon the Ninth is a smart, well-crafted, and snappy read from an author whose talent is obvious on every page. I look forward to seeing where the story goes next after a surprising, action-packed finale. It’s an impressive debut for a memorable voice.
As a final note, I began the book in audio before switching to print, but this was only because I wanted to read the book faster. The reader for the audio version does an excellent job and is highly recommended.
THE LOCKED TOMB TRILOGY
BOOK 1: Gideon the Ninth
BOOK 2: Harrow the Ninth
BOOK 3: Alecto the Ninth