Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Necromancers in space.  Walking skeletons, magic, sword fights, all in a galactic empire setting with spaceships, planetary invasions, and armies.  Throw in a fairly pedestrian, yet amusing language, and you have a literary concoction that has the potential to blow up in your face.  Muir, however, manages to make it work, creating a light-hearted romp with a believable redemption story and characters who outgrow their obnoxious selves.

In a universe ruled by necromancers (I use the term “universe” loosely, as the exact scope of the world is not described), the emperor is a living god, having survived millennia.  He gets help from eight noble houses, each specializing in something different.  Gideon is a foundling who was brought up in the Ninth house, which was tasked with sealing a tomb containing the body of the emperor’s greatest enemy.  Other houses are in charge of the empire’s war effort, research, defense and other tasks.  Gideon is in her late teens, and she hates living in the Ninth house.  She is treated as the lowest servant, abused especially harshly by the heir to the house, Harrow, who is a year younger.  Harrow is a skilled necromancer and after she foils Gideon’s last escape attempt, she reveals a letter from the emperor, inviting all house heirs and their personal bodyguards, the cavaliers, to come to the emperor’s First House, to try out for the position of a Lyctor.  Lyctors are nearly immortal beings, directly aiding the emperor.

The Ninth house is in decline, and there is no one left who’d be suitable to become a cavalier.  Harrow thus bribes Gideon with the promise of future freedom if she joins her and pretends to be her personal guard.  They arrive at a mansion, which houses the school, and are joined by the seven other houses.  While there is an allusion to teaching, everyone is largely left to their own devices, to explore the mansion and learn on their own how to become a Lyctor.  At first, Harrow is doing her own research, severely curtailing Gideon’s communication, but after Gideon rescues Harrow from a tight spot, they realize they must work together a achieve their ultimate goal.  Soon, however, people start dying.  The surviving house heirs and their cavaliers realize that to learn everything there is to learn, one must either cooperate with others or otherwise gain access to secrets the others uncovered.  There are no rules, and eventually paranoia and backstabbing become the order of the day.

As the bodies pile up, the heir to the Sixth house realizes that the Seventh house heir isn’t who she says she is.  He confronts her and finds out that she is actually one of the original Lyctors.  She became one when she had already developed advanced blood cancer, and unable to die for centuries, she survived in pain until she went crazy and decided to kill the emperor.  The killings were her way to lure the emperor to the mansion.  Harrow, Gideon, one more necromancer and one cavalier are the sole survivors and confront the Lyctor.  In the ensuing battle, close to defeat, Gideon realizes that the only way to win is to kill herself and force Harrow to absorb her soul, and thus become a new Lyctor.  Harrow defeats the old Lyctor and passes out.  She awakens in a hospital, with the emperor on her side, who reveals to her that the empire is losing the war, most of the other Lyctors are dead, and he’d need her to take their place and defend the empire.  Harrow agrees, and the story ends.

As I was reading the book, many thoughts and comparisons to other stories came to my mind.  The first and most obvious comparison was to the Magitech series by Chris Fox.  The similarity, however, was entirely superficial.  While the latter deals with the fusion of magic and technology in an expansive space opera, Gideon uses the science fiction elements so sparingly that they wouldn’t need to be there at all.  The same story could have taken place on a world with nine islands or a continent with nine castles.  This is by no means a science fiction book, which does not detract from its qualities, but readers should adjust their expectations accordingly.

The second comparison I thought of was, ironically, another science fiction book, Artemis by Andy Weir.  Gideon struck me as just as obnoxious, brash, and unlikable as Jazz in Weir’s book.  They both talk quicker than think, they both have the tendency to stumble into trouble due to their own stupidity or lack of information, they seem to be unwilling to learn, and they are both very frustrating in this regard because they are exceedingly smart and capable.  Unlike Jazz, however, Gideon grows up from this stage.  She ceases to use people for her personal benefit and begins to cooperate with them.  She actually sacrifices herself over and over for Harrow, whom she initially absolutely hates.  Harrow herself causes this change in Gideon.  She confesses the reasons why she treated her so harshly in the past and exposes her vulnerability to Gideon.  This reveal, however, is caused in turn by Gideon, who warms up to Harrow (before the by-the-book crisis in Gideon’s hero’s journey).  Quite frankly, I could not pinpoint the spot where the attitude between these two characters started to turn.  It was done so gradually and masterfully that it felt absolutely natural.  It created something of a redemption arc for both characters, which I also realized only once the book was finished.  In hindsight, I think this is the strongest attribute of this novel, and I’m very impressed at how Muir pulled it off.

The third work I originally compared the book to was the Harry Potter series.  After the initial introduction of the two main characters, we find ourselves at a school of magic with their peers: nineteen characters, plus three teachers.  Gideon and Harrow are both in their late teens, so the expectation is that others would be as well.  I was expecting monsters, lots of magic and cooperation.  Instead, I got something akin to gothic horror, paranoia and backstabbing, with characters ranging from early teens to full adulthood, and at least one of them dead anyway.  I don’t know whether Muir consciously created these expectations just to subvert them later, but if she did, it was great job.  If not, it just further enhances the entertainment value of the book.

Speaking of entertainment value, I’d like to dwell on the language.  Much of it contains idioms that would be familiar to the Internet generation.  One-liner quips, insults and allusions to our own popular culture seem completely out of place in the world of the novel, but somehow work out well.  They make the book much more accessible and light-hearted, negating the morbid worldbuilding to a degree that I genuinely enjoyed the work.  Not that I’m disgusted by giant regenerating skeletons, but the story could have easily turned into a depressing, heavy diatribe on mortality, but instead remained an easy-going romp that I found difficult to put down.  My only concern here is that the language will not age well, as most of the idioms are bound to go out of fashion soon.

The last positive aspect of the book I’d like to mention is how well the characters are developed.  Gideon and Harrow have a lot of depth, a great backstory, and they grow and change along with the book.  All the houses are very narrowly defined right from the onset, and it would be tempting to create one-dimensional characters with house attributes.  Muir, however, manages to make almost everyone interesting.  Many characters harbor a secret or two, and almost everyone changes with the circumstances.  Even the smaller players, those who are killed off early, have their own personalities and are sometimes difficult to distinguish from others, since Muir spends just as much time on people’s similarities as she spends on their differences.  In fact, at times I had to check the reference on who is who, when people started blending together.  There were notable exceptions, in the form of the Second and Eight houses, who remained rigid throughout the novel, but I think they served to add contrast between them and the rest of the students, who evolved over time.

My only criticism of the work is that it left several intriguing questions open.  These questions deal primarily with Gideon’s origin and the source of her unusual powers, and they may never be answered anymore, as Gideon died at the end of the book, and the emperor confirmed that her death was irrevocable.

I’m willing to live with not knowing where Gideon came from.  The book is otherwise so entertaining, full of emotion and brilliant character arcs that I found it difficult to put down.  It is not surprising that it got nominated for all major awards.  Gideon the Ninth is a breath of fresh air in its genre, and I can recommend it to everyone who looks for something lighter.  Don’t be discouraged by the macabre cover picture or description on the book’s jacket; it’s a book full of humanity, life, humor, and one of the greatest dad jokes I’ve ever read.

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