I wanted to call this book my sleeper pick for the best debut of the year, but seeing as the book isn’t even out yet and already has a subterranean press version being made it seems like I am not the only one in the know. Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir, was one of our dark horses for 2019 and a book we have been paying close attention to – mostly because it features necromancers. I feel like necromancers are mages that everyone thinks are cool, but don’t have enough books to scratch my lich. I was super pumped to see a new story about raising undead minions hitting shelves, and the fact that it’s a kickass action-adventure is the icing on the cake.
Gideon the Ninth has an ambitious and complicated premise, so bear with me. If I had to describe it in a single sentence it would be: Triwizard tournament meets murder mystery dinner in space. The setting is a galaxy-spanning empire run by a necromancer so strong he might as well be a god. This “necro lord prime” has nine houses underneath him, each with their own culture, specialty necromancer magic, and noble family. Our protagonist is the titular Gideon, orphan, swordswoman, and slave of the Ninth House. Gideon is an interesting character with a strong sword arm and a foul mouth. She has a bombastic and humorous personality that will have you laughing out loud and rolling your eyes (in a good-humored way). The book as a whole is extremely funny, but I found the humor more present in the first half as book gradually takes on a more serious and emotional tone. She is also a queer protagonist if that is something you are looking for in a book.
The first part of the book details Gideon’s frustrating life as a servant of Harrow, the noble daughter of the Ninth House. After trying to escape from Harrow’s clutches and repeated abuse for years, Gideon is offered a deal: team up with Harrow in a special tournament of champions, help her win, and go free. See, the lord necromancer is looking to build a new council of lieutenants and the selection process is shrouded in mystery. All the characters know is that it involves eight of the noble houses (numbers Two through Nine) sending a swordsperson and necromancer duo to represent them in a competition of sorts at the First House. So, Gideon of course accepts, and the majority of the book takes place in a giant mysterious tower with an eight-way battle royal between sixteen contestants.
God, I still have a lot to talk about and we are already almost five hundred words in. For starters, the characters in this book are stellar. A really good way to tell if a book has interesting characters is if you can remember, and differentiate, twenty-seven god-damn archaic names thrown at you all at the same time. Muir does not make it easy to remember who is who, with the reader meeting 10+ people all at the same time and casually rotating between referring to them by their first and last names depending on who is talking. But, she made it work. Every character is interesting, complex, memorable, and evocative of their unique identity on each page, which both helps you keep everything straight and get invested in the story. Shout out to Septimus, the enigmatic and studious royal of team “Eighth House” for being my crush – he’s super cool. However, all the characters were enjoyable and there wasn’t a single one I would change. In addition, Muir gave each of the houses a different take on necromancy, which was very exciting. It was like getting eight entirely different necromancer books at the same time.
Mum’s the word on the actual competition in the book, as figuring out what the competition actually entails is half the fun. The characters are left in this giant magical ‘Tower of Babel’ type structure, with no guidance, and told simply to go to town. This does a great job to stoke the reader’s sense of curiosity and urgency while reading the book, while also creating this tense atmosphere of distrust between all of the characters as no one understands the rules of the “game.”
The worldbuilding in Gideon The Ninth is a complicated and nebulous topic, as I think it is a strength and a weakness of the book. As a strength: Muir has some really cool and interesting ideas. Necromancy, in my humble opinion, is hard magic to make fun and exciting – as it traditionally just involves raising undead minions. Muir manages to make classical takes on necromancer magic fresh and exciting, as well as invent several cool new takes on the magic. In addition, she does all of this in space, which just adds another layer of complication to the subject. The houses are all interesting and felt like they have complex histories that are breeding grounds for conflicts. The tensions between houses in the book feel organic, and you get a nice feeling of this huge space empire where each house takes on a different role.
However, while I think all of the above positives about Muir’s worldbuilding are true, I also think that the world-building can feel extremely piecemeal at times. While houses feel unique and well fleshed out, this is only true about the houses that Muir takes time to talk about (which is about half). The other houses are left completely unexplained, and it can leave the reader frustrated. While you will get these nice little details on how this space empire runs, a lot of what is going on is left completely unexplained and the reader needs to be comfortable with being left in the dark. I got the sense that Muir built out this very intricate and well-realized universe, but then didn’t explain enough of how her world works in the book so that you get this sense that you are missing a ton of information. It can also create this sense of “false depth,” where the worldbuilding seems deep on the surface but lacks the small details to really breathe life into the world. I think a lot of these worldbuilding problems stem from plot relevancy. It often feels like Muir wants to keep how her world works secret, and the only details you can pry out of her hands are the worldbuilding that is immediately relevant to the story. In the end, it gives the sense that Gideon the Ninth is less the first book in a series, and more the first half of a really good incomplete book.
All things considered, Gideon The Ninth is an ambitious, engrossing, creative, hilarious romp that stands out in the science fiction and fantasy genres. It has some issues, but they do little to detract from the pure unbridled joy I felt as I tore through this debut. Gideon The Ninth is likely the strongest debut of the year and is one of the funniest books I have read recently. Despite its unique outlandish premise, I can’t think of a person I know who wouldn’t enjoy it, and I suspect it’s going to have a fairly large following pretty quickly. Don’t sleep on this dark horse, go check out one of the best books of the year.
Rating: Gideon The Ninth – 9.0/10