Book Review: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

So I’m kind of getting into the swing of reading for pleasure on a regular basis again. Yay?

In any case, I’d heard a lot of buzz about Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, including Nebula & Hugo nominations. And, more importantly, I had a bunch of friends who enjoyed the book, so I figured I’d take their recommendation to see what all the commotion was about.

Gideon cover

‘Snarky Goth Girl’ is a pretty common trope these days. You’ve probably got an image in your head already: Dark clothes, pale skin, dark hair, heaps of sarcasm. (Also a more than likely chance of being voiced by Tara Strong, if animated).

In Gideon the Ninth, Muir asks “what if every character was a snarky goth girl?”

I’ll admit, I’m being a bit pithy here. As to be honest, Muir does a lot to flesh out her characters and make them sympathetic, even though they’re the sort of skull-facepainted necromantic bad guys that somebody like Flash Gordon would swing by and punch out on a random adventure.

Gideon the Ninth centers on, well, Gideon the Ninth. She’s an orphan, raised by an order of skeleton-commanding necromancers who themselves are in decline. Speaking of character tropes, Gideon herself is a solid example of the ‘sword lesbian’ archetype, though it’s all handled in a matter-of-factly sort of way. Like, Gideon is a gay character, but the book is less about her preferences and more about her punching skeleton monsters in the face.

After an unsuccessful escape attempt, Gideon is shanghaied into playing the bodyguard to a young necromancer woman named Harrow, as the two travel to the center of the necromantic space-empire by order of their immortal lich-emperor. They wind up getting plunked down in an isolated, decaying mansion (that is also probably haunted) along with the other necromancer/swordsman pairs of the other noble houses, and tasked with discovering the secret of true immortality. Swordfights and mystery and murder ensue– all accompanied by various witty quips from various characters.

Gideon the Ninth is a weird book– I dunno if I’d call it New Weird, but it’s definitely unique. It’s a blend of a haunted house mystery with the noble-house politics of Dune, interspersed with big flashy action sequences whenever a horrible monster shows up. It all comes together for a fairly fun combination, if one that’s really swingy in tone. Muir piles on the grim misery in the first part of the novel, almost to an excessive degree. Things lighten up once Gideon reaches the big haunted mansion and starts meeting characters that don’t loathe her. And again, Muir does a great job in fleshing out the eighteen(!) or so characters roaming around said haunted mansion, showing a lot of them to be surprisingly pleasant people for necromancers. Which in turn makes the horror hit all the harder once people start dying.

Really though, for all the strangeness and necromancy of Gideon the Ninth, the book is a fairly straightforward mystery-adventure. This said, it might not be for everyone, especially given the rather bleak first third of the novel, which is primarily occupied with various people abusing Gideon, both physically and emotionally. And, y’know, given all that, I wasn’t 100 percent sold on Gideon’s character arc in which she finally connects with Harrow, her necromancer (who devoted most of her life to fighting with Gideon in various ways). Furthermore, the snarky tone is laid on a little thick– which could be terribly entertaining to some readers, but offputting to others. Like, it’s kind of weird to read a swords-and-ghosts space opera and run into terms like “narc” or “resting bitch face.” It’s sci-fi by way of the internet, I guess.

Once it gets going, Gideon the Ninth is a solid pageturner of a novel. I’d hardly call it ‘deep’ sci-fi by any means, but it’s not trying to be anything other than a rollicking, quip-filled horror flick. And in that, Gideon the Ninth succeeds pretty well. It’s the first in a trilogy– the sequel, Harrow the Ninth comes out in August, with the third novel to follow … eventually. I’m curious to see where the series will go, but I also might wait ’til everything’s out at once before looking into it. But hey, at least I still wanna read more. Just … eventually. Pace it out, and all that.


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