“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.” – blurb from the publisher’s website.
I! Loved! This! Book!
I picked up this book on a suggestion from a friend who loves Tamora Pierce like I do. It was a bit slow to start, but once I got about a third of the way through, Gideon the Ninth bloomed into my favorite fantasy read of 2022 so far. My only cautions would be if you dislike dreary atmospheres and/or can’t handle gory fighting scenes, as the last section is pretty brutal.
I’ve made an effort to be less spoilery in the discussion below than I might otherwise because I really want people to read this book and talk to me about it, but a good deal of its impact depends on a few of the specific plot points.
Gideon the Ninth was such an unexpected delight of a book. Given the blurbs on the inside cover of the book, I was worried that I would be in for a Deadpool-esque experience where a smarmy protagonist slathers on heavy handed sarcasm and curses for the shock value and easy laughs. I was pleasantly super wrong.
The book starts slow due to the dark, bleak Ninth House in which most of part one is set, followed by the sudden introduction of 15 new characters in a new setting once we make it out of the gloom. I wish I had realized earlier in my read that the back of the book contains both pronunciation guides for all the wacky names and brief descriptions of each character and which House they belong to. It would’ve saved me from getting lost in all those new characters being referenced by just their first name, just their surname, or just their House number and title (e.g. just referring to Harrowhark as the adept or necromancer of the Ninth). A word of caution, though, probably refrain from checking out the pronunciation guides in detail until you’ve finished the book because some of the author notes are a little bit spoiler-y.
Even when I was trudging through the slower beginning of the book, Muir’s writing delighted me with laugh-out-loud funny sentences that I kept reading to my husband. Just a few excerpts convinced him to read the book before I even started talking about it being good on a character or plot level. Once the plot starts to pick up, Gideon the Ninth turns into a part mystery, part competition between the eight Houses. It felt like an Agatha Christie-style “who’s behind this and where’s the real danger” crossed with an almost Squid Game-y vibe from the necromancers and cavaliers undergoing dangerous challenges with specific but often hidden requirements. Once the Houses start to turn on each other as they begin to theorize the true nature of the challenges and the wheels start to fall off the proverbial skeleton bus, the narrative takes on an atmosphere kind of like Annihilation in an “oh god why did we even come here” sort of way. Everyone could be dangerous, no one really knows anyone else’s power level, almost nothing is what it seems, and it’s one hell of a story populated with a truly impressive number of memorable characters.
I identified super hard with both Gideon and Harrowhark. The way Gideon talks is how I would talk if I were cooler and wittier. Harrow is the way I am when I get competitive or fixated on a goal. I appreciated the gender and sexuality representation in this book–there was a pretty good distribution of straight and gay characters (no gay men, maybe, though?) and both gender and sexuality felt incidental to who the characters were.
I loved the way the necromancer/cavalier archetypal relationship was manifested or transformed in the individual relationships of each necro/cav pair (or triad for the Third) of the eight Houses. I particularly enjoyed the deep trust that Palamedes and Camilla of the Sixth had in each other and the half-love-triangle-half-power-struggle between Coronabeth, Ianthe, and Naberius of the Third. We as readers grow to understand what is expected of a cavalier in relation to her necromancer as Gideon learns the same by observing the others, and the effect is well-executed cumulative foreshadowing of the last couple of acts. The evolution of Harrow and Gideon’s relationship felt believable and natural. The characterization of each of the 17 characters across the eight Houses was skillful and nuanced. I thought Muir did a good job with pacing the developing relationships between the Houses as well, and it was brilliant to use Gideon’s fake vow of silence in the first few chapters at Canaan House to let both Gideon and readers observe the other Houses interacting. Unfortunately, having so many great characters makes the high body count in Gideon the Ninth harder to take, to the point where the way the book ended has me questioning whether I even want to read the second book. I don’t know why, though, I wouldn’t trust this author that I just said successfully crafted 17 characters (more, actually, but we leave them behind in Drearburh) in one book to continue creating good, complex, funny, heart wrenching characters in the next book. If nothing else, I’m interested in picking up the second book to see more of Muir’s settings.
The specific setting of Canaan House was vividly described and left a salient impression with its decaying splendor. Muir makes good use of scent, texture, and light to bring to life and differentiate the spooky lower-level ‘facility’ and the various rooms and terraces of the main house. Canaan House did end up feeling like somewhat of a bubble, though, in that we came to know so much about it and so little about the rest of the universe that Gideon the Ninth is set in. I got this effect from Drearburh in the beginning of the book as well–what we do see is rendered in great sensory detail, but it’s hard to imagine the rest of the planet or galaxy or universe. We see a little bit of space travel and some brief mentions of how the planetary system of the Nine Houses is different from other planetary systems, but it’s left mostly vague. That does add some interesting complication to the story, though, because what few details we get about the rest of the world and the politics of the Nine Houses of the Empire seem to suggest that our protagonists live under the reign of and worship an Emperor who dispatches legions of swordsmen and necromancers to other planets to create death in order to harvest the resulting thanergy. Maybe? At least that’s what I was getting. Hopefully book 2 will delve into a little more of the macro and shed some light on that question.