Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
The Emperor needs necromancers.
The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.
Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead nonsense.
Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as skillfully animated as arcane revenants. The result is a heart-pounding epic science fantasy.
Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.
Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will be become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.
Of course, some things are better left dead.
Trigger Warning: death, mentions cancer, and graphic violence.
“I’m begging you here—I’ll trade you a skin mag. Frontline Titties of the Fifth.”
Here’s my sell: Close corners mystery in a gothic castle but set on a planet, where necromancers and sword masters, half arrogant and half cool weirdos with gallows humor and dad jokes, must compete for God’s ultimate test. But then people start getting murdered and they actually have to come face-to-face with what is beneath their ambition and their surface level humor.
Do you remember that scene in What We Do In The Shadows, where Taika Waititi’s character plays music and gives his date a rose and while she’s telling him about her future ambitions he awkwardly bites her neck but he hits an artery, causing an unimaginable amount of blood to spill out everywhere even though he spread out towels everywhere? That balance of macabre and awkward hilarity is this book.
Both What We Do In The Shadows and Gideon the Ninth utilize the dark and deadpan flavor of Kiwi humor. What We Do In The Shadows is satire and this is pure black comedy, specifically grotesque humor.
Muir uses horror to talk about the Id and uses a cosmic futuristic setting to talk about existence. Humor masks the Id, hiding our suffering and basest instincts. Muir shows us the strange, mysterious, magnificent, fantastic, hideous, incongruous, ugly, unpleasant, or disgusting which our anti-heroes must address because coming face-to-face with the disgustingly horrific world is easier than what is inside ourselves. She places uncomfortable bizarreness in the world, in the characters, in the terminology so we may also feel what the characters go through. Muir takes an anti-serious tone when faced with isolated emotions and the suffering of the characters so we may see their development unfold into characters laying out their hearts for us.
Gideon is a wannabe soldier who gets roped into her childhood arch-nemesis’ schemes. Harrow, the heir to the Ninth House, is requested by their god, the Necrolord, in a contest for the Lyctorhood, a prominent high position in their society. Basically it’s a test to become a deity. They shuttle off to the First House planet to face other necromancers and their cavalier’s (knight’s) of the eight Houses, all vying for the position. Then the bodies start to drop.
Gideon and Harrow must face what is beneath the humor and horror in their world.
With her dirty magazines, ginger sweet ass, and delicious aviators Gideon slid into my heart. I’ll take all of it: the deadpan humor, the stubborn frustrations, the biceps, the gothic arrogance. I want it all.
“Nonagesimus,” she said slowly, “the only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted someone to hold the sword as you fell on it. The only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted your ass kicked so hard, the Locked Tomb opened and a parade came out to sing, ‘Lo! A destructed ass.’ The only job I’d do would be if you wanted me to spot you while you backflipped off the top tier into Drearburh.”
She gets off that deathly planet of the Nine (Drearburh), away from the nuns and cranky dudes with sticks up their butts. She follows our sweet and gallows bitch slash love interest Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Their relationship is complicated but if this was a romance novel it would be the hate-to-love trope all the way. Both these girls are hurting and neither wants to admit it so they mask it with funny names and sharp jabs.
“I appreciate it, my crepuscular queen. It was good. You were good.”
Harrow, at a total loss for words, eventually managed the rather pathetic: “Don’t make this weird, Nav!” and stalked off after Palamedes.
God, I love these two gothic bitches.
It is so refreshing to read a book where I am not bombarded with misogyny or homophobia. Gideon and Harrow are not lowered, diminished, or gaslit by the men in this book. There’s no hatred based on attraction or gender. They get to be counted just as talented as anyone else. Discrimination is not a contributing factor.
I want to discuss something about the lesbian rep here. I notice some reviewers saying they wish the lesbian content should have been a bigger aspect of the book. I dislike that idea. It relies too heavily on the idea that queer rep needs to do some heavier lifting than het books. I like that Gideon’s queerness is just a normal part of her identity, just like any other part of her identity. I do love the representation here but I dislike the way reviewers are making it seem like that’s the whole purpose. That comes from a place where it expects queer identity to be the entirety of the book, which sorta perpetuates ideas that queerness has to be front and center to a book’s existence.
I have an unpopular opinion when it comes to the worldbuilding compared to more popular reviewers. The world, the terminology, the gothic horror creates a bizarreness as if we are coming into this strange new world introduced to the uncomfortable, weird, and unsettling. It’s like we’re placed into a very real future where we see people using terms we don’t use, magic informed by those terms, thousands upon thousands years old objects we recognize from our own but foreign to eyes of our protagonist, and beings so bizarre we can only watch as the author shows us, rather than tells us, what is in front of us. The way she shows us the world is matched with the bizarreness of the horror. The worldbuilding isn’t thin, underdeveloped, anachronistic, or bad. Muir does worldbuilding going against the norm. That, inevitably, means she is not going to explain everything for you because she wants you to experience it. If you are the type of reader that prefers things explained or simplified this isn’t the book for you. This is not a book that takes itself as a piece of serious drama. Not all books fit every reader. This book relies more on a different perspective of worldbuilding. It goes against the author providing information and instead lets you get used to the world by enjoying the banter, the sharp dialogue, and the new relationships forming between this party of magic and sword wielding assholes.
Muir’s magic system is based on the idea of existence. She has necromancers who have specific talents based on their house. Harrow, for example, raises skeletons. Talent is cultivated and inherited genetically. No one is some fucking messiah who magically gets chosen because blah blah blah. Thanergy and Thalergy are the sources of magic; death energy and life energy. The ninth House can command thanergy by commanding skeletons. The Sixth House, for example, are psychometrists and find thalergetic and thanergetic traces of magic left on objects. The Second House converts thalergy to thanergy. Magic is described through scientific-styled terminology, much like our own scientists describe what occurs in our bodies. At first that’s definitely confusing and absolutely a valid critique. But the more I sunk into the great dialogue and vibrant characters, I found the pecularity worked for me purely because of the way the world exists in this place between the bizarre, the grotesque, and the humorous. The bizarre is not just there because it’s pretty. I don’t like authors that use the grotesque and strange just because that’s interesting to them. Muir makes her purpose known in the fact that the bizarre builds upon the façade that Harrow and Gideon put on for the reader.
The world is also semi-based on Roman civilization but super goth as all fuck. The very thing all these goths, princesses, and sword masters are fighting for is called a Lyctorhood. Lictors would serve the Roman emperor. I suspect that may come up in future novels since Muir seems to be saying something about the Necrolord in regards to sacrifice and the horrific suffering that happens as a result of this competition. All their names sound like Roman names: Judith Deuteros, Coronabeth Tridentarius, Isaac Tettares, and so forth. God this book is so cool.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a sensory filled novel. The dialogue is so rich and vibrant that it’s like I could poke my head through the book and feel the realness of their conversations. Each and every character feels as memorable as those from Harry Potter: from Hermione Granger to Rita Skeeter. Each time I faced a new surprise I gasped, or cried, or said FUCK and SHIT! I loved how a young girl admired a butch goth girl with arrogant biceps and twin sisters who fought and screamed the complexities of sisterhood. And the corny dad jokes are winning. I cheered as the strangeness of the ancient and modern found a place outside of the normal and seriousness that science-fiction is supposed to be. You can resist what is in us or accept the macabre strangeness, like when we must come to face death in our own, at our funerals and memorials, and appreciate the banality and carnality of Muir’s world.
Tamsyn Muir’s writing is a bloody, carnal, chic cool girl beastiality which forces the internal and conscious to face its beautiful and grotesque existence. Prepare to get your heart broken.