Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
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Gideon the Ninth is the most fun you’ll ever have with a skeleton.
The Emperor needs necromancers.
The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.
Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.
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 necromantic skeletons. 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 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.
“One flesh, one end.”
Gideon Nav means to get out from under the thumb of the Ninth, and make her own way in the universe. She definitely does not mean to become the cavalier of necromancer Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth. But, as things tend to go, one thing leads to another, and these two, who despise one another, must work together anyway, or die trying.
It’s a dynamic I absolutely love, to tell the truth, and it makes for a story that relies on your connection to the characters to keep your interest. Are Gideon and Harrow necessarily people you’d want to root for? Oh, definitely not. They’re crass and sharp and in it for self-interested reasons. But as characters, they’re outstanding on their own and in a group dynamic, complicating expectations and complicating each other.
Plus, they’re such polar opposites that it’s fun to watch them learn to rely on each other. They’re so long-suffering and it’s a delight.
Gideon the Ninth is a bit of a genre-blender.
In addition to the excellent characterization (it takes some hard work to make me root for people who are arguably complete jerks!), Gideon the Ninth does some ambitious work with genre blending. What initially feels like sci-fi, set in deep space with shuttles between planets and hints of a broader universe, takes on the flavor of fantasy the second Harrow first raises a slew of skeletons from the ground beneath her. Then, just when you’re comfortable with the notion of necromancers in space, the advanced tech is shifted to a different arena, and a mystery slides to the forefront, complete with murder and betrayal. It makes it terribly difficult to slot the novel into just one category, and makes the approach to the plot even more interesting. I am a sucker for mysteries, and blending it with this sci-fi/fantasy approach is a win in my heart.
That said, all this genre blending does mean that character takes the forefront, and plot falls to the back seat. That’s not to say there’s a lack of plot, but that it’s on the slow side. In fact, I docked a star in my rating for this, because with all the questions established, so very few felt like they were answered, and the clues piled up faster than answers rolled in.
It’s effective in making me want to read the second book in the trilogy, Harrow the Ninth (which, incidentally, is told in second person, one hell of a feat), and it keeps me guessing since I enjoy trying to solve mysteries with whatever limited information the author has given me so far. Nevertheless, the ending and its lack of answers did frustrate me a little bit, and I wish a few more things had been included in the reveals, just to close a few more doors, or open new ones to ponder over.
Now, if you’re looking for an f/f romance, this is not the place.
Sure, the blurb on the front cover advertises the book as lesbian necromancers in space. It’s not wholly wrong, either. No labels are used in the text, but it’s pretty clear that Gideon has an interest in women. And her relationship with Harrowhark? It’s some of the sharpest enemies to almost lovers I’ve read, full of snark and complicated history.
But it’s not a romance. This is not about two ladies falling in love. It’s about solving murders using brute strength and the undead. It’s about reconciling who we thought we’re supposed to be with who we’ve become. And while I have no doubts that Gideon’s relationship with Harrowhark is on the enemies to lovers track (that pool scene alone? raise your hand if you know what I’m talking about, because wow), they don’t kiss, and they don’t say they’re in love.
Then again, I think if your characters have to kiss and say “I love you” to prove to the reader they’re in love, they’re probably not in love. At least not on a convincing, satisfying level, which means this? This was outstanding.
Truthfully, I’m reminded a little of Catra and Adora from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. They manage to hate each other and care about each other at the same time, and the tension is unreal. Would direct rep be nice? Sure would, but in this book? It’s an adult novel, and I think its intended audience should be able to connect the dots without spelling everything out in blinking lights.
I can’t wait to see the fallout in Harrow the Ninth.
Gideon the Ninth is a fantastic example of what you can do with genre blending. Not only that, but it presents wonderfully flawed, complex characters trapped in situations they can’t walk away from. Maybe the plot moves a little slowly, maybe not enough reaches a complete conclusion this time around, but damn if I couldn’t look away all the same.
I’ll be waiting eagerly for Harrow the Ninth. With the promise of an entire chunk of the book in second person, the writer in me wants to sink their teeth into the technical elements of the novel. And with the promise of Harrow’s POV working out the events of Gideon the Ninth, the reader in me desperately wants to see how these plot threads move along and resolve.
If you can stand a slightly slower plot that boosts its characters up, Gideon the Ninth may be worth a try for you. And if you like exciting fight scenes and necromancy, this may also be a sign you should give it a try. I went in skeptical because of polarized reviews, admittedly. People seem to either love it or hate it.
But I’m here until the next book. I’m here to find out exactly how deep into space these necromancers are going to go.
And if they have more conversations about their feelings, dammit.
CW: violence, gore, suicide, loss of a loved one, child death, child abuse, body horror
I cannot understate the amount of bones, blood, and guts flying around this book. The final fight scene is particularly gory, featuring a good deal of body horror adjacent content. It goes hand in hand with necromancy, but some folks would understandably not want to touch that. Keep that in mind before you read, if gore is a sticking point for you.