Gideon the Ninth, the debut novel by Tamsyn Muir, is best summarized by the blurb listed in place of prominence on its front cover: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!”
So when the book arrived on my desk with that blurb emblazoned on the cover, I had the same reaction any rational human being would have. “You have my attention,” I said out loud.
But my attention came with some doubts. I wasn’t entirely sure that any book could live up to that summary. Was Gideon the Ninth going to be one of those all-too-common cases of a book with a fantastic initial setup that failed to execute it well? Would it be well-plotted but with clumsy sentences, or maybe suffocate under the weight of that high-concept premise?
By the time I was 10 pages in, I’d forgotten all about those concerns. Gideon the Ninth turns out to surpass that initial eye-catching blurb. It’s an incredibly immersive book, with a rich, detailed mythology, gorgeously balanced sentences, and a genuinely meaningful central relationship.
I started this book chuckling at the outrageous premise. I finished it crying, because the ending punched me straight in the gut.
Every story is better when you put it in IN SPACE
As promised, Gideon the Ninth has quite the high-concept premise, so bear with me while we lay out the plot as simply as possible. The titular Gideon is an 18-year-old orphan, a foundling who grew up in the bone-obsessed necromantic cult of the Ninth House. (There are nine Houses in this book, each on a different planet and each home to a different necromantic cult.) Gideon herself is not a necromancer: She’s a soldier, a likable jock who just wants a simple life with her dirty magazines and her longsword, away from the misery and desolation of her life in Ninth.
But Gideon is an indentured servant, and her labor is owed to Harrowhark, the 17-year-old princess of the Ninth, most powerful necromancer of her generation, and Gideon’s childhood nemesis. And no matter how cunningly Gideon tries to plot her escape, Harrow manages to foil her at every turn. She says she won’t let Gideon go before she performs one last service for Harrow as her cavalier.
Together, Gideon and Harrow must journey to the long-abandoned First House, a decaying, gothic wreck of a palace on a planet full of water and skeletons, to join necromancers and cavaliers from each of the other seven Houses in their system. At the First House, each necromancer will strive to become a Lyctor, an immortal and borderline-omnipotent servant to the undying Emperor God — but to do so, they’ll need their cavaliers’ help to make it through a series of challenges of both necromancy and the sword.
All of this is a lot, obviously, but Muir establishes this complex world so simply and so elegantly that it never becomes overwhelming. She provides just enough exposition to more or less give the gist of what’s going on at any given moment, and her grasp on the narrative is so sure that you can relax as you read, confident that she’ll tell you what you need to know as soon as you need to know it.
Mostly, Muir lets the plot unfold in the background where you’re not looking, and she lets her characters do the driving. And they are incredibly charming drivers.
Gideon’s our point of view character, and her flat, deadpan voice contrasts beautifully to her screamingly over-the-top gothic surroundings. When faced with a horrific skeleton monster (“The rib cage was banded straips of thick, knobbly bone, spurred all round with sharp points, the skull — was it a skull? — a huge knobble of brainpan”), Gideon’s immediate response is to say, “The arms kind of looked like swords. I want to fight it.” She’s a sweetly basic kid in the midst of unspeakable terrors, and while everyone around her treats her as though she’s a darkly brooding action hero, the reader can see clearly that she’s not really dark or brooding at all. That’s just how her face is.
Harrow, meanwhile, really is both dark and brooding, and she’s motivated by a restless and fidgeting ambition. She’s also a vicious bitch, and part of the deep pleasure of this book is watching her verbally spar with Gideon in an endless extension of a fight you can feel they’ve been having their whole lives: Gideon relentless and blunt, Harrow needle-sharp and ferocious.
“I completely fucking hate you, because you are a hideous witch from hell. No offence,” Gideon tells Harrow early on, to which Harrow replies pityingly, “Oh, Griddle! But I don’t even remember about you most of the time.”
Underlying their mutual enmity is an unspoken but powerful affection. It’s clear that Gideon and Harrow would like to kill each other, but it also becomes obvious very quickly that they would die for each other, too. Their relationship forms a classic trope (sweet jock and vicious schemer who hate each other, but maybe not as much as they’d like to; if you’ve read fanfiction, you’ve read that fic before), and it’s profoundly satisfying to watch it bloom within the rotting, bone-ridden walls of the First House.
Rounding everything out is Muir’s rich and detailed magical system. All of the magic-users in this book are necromancers, which means they’re all working with death magic, but Muir finds new angles on it every time. Harrow’s specialty is working with bones and skeletons, but we also meet necromancers who work by siphoning souls out of the living, and others who study the liminal spaces between life and death. And that means that when we reach the climactic series of necromantic battles, we’re not just watching armies of skeletons battling against each other: Every discipline has its own strengths and weaknesses, and that means that each necromancer has to be strategic in the ways they use their power.
Which in turn means that the battles aren’t just cool magic death battles. They’re also character studies, and they end in a strategic choice that feels both heartbreaking and completely inevitable.
Throughout, Muir’s prose is sleek and compulsively readable. She has a genius for sliding her voice seamlessly from Lovecraftian gothic mode into a slangy contemporary mode without ever undercutting one or the other for cheap comedy. Instead, the contemporary mode makes the cast of characters feel familiar and recognizable, the Lovecraftian horror makes the world feel expansive and terrifying, and the slippage between both powers the book forward.
The result is immersive; it demands to be swallowed down in long, luxurious gulps. I devoured it in two days and then spent the next day brooding over it, worrying the characters around in my mind.
Luckily, I only have to wait a few more months before I’ll get my next dose. A direct sequel, Harrow the Ninth, has already been announced for 2020.