Gideon the Ninth

by Tamsyn Muir

Cover image

Series: The Locked Tomb #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: September 2019
ISBN: 1-250-31317-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 448

This is an ebook, so metadata may be inaccurate or missing. See notes on ebooks for more information.

Buy at Powell's Books

Despite being raised there, Gideon Nav is an outsider in the Ninth House. Her mother, already dead, fell from the sky with a one-day-old Gideon in tow, leaving her an indentured servant. She's a grumpy, caustic teenager in a world of moldering corpses, animated skeletons, and mostly-dead adults whose parts are falling off. Her world is sword fighting, dirty magazines, a feud with the house heir Harrowhark, and a determination to escape the terms of her indenture.

Gideon does get off the planet, but not the way that she expects. She doesn't get accepted into the military. She ends up in the middle of a bizarre test, or possibly an ascension rite, mingling with and competing with the nobility of the empire alongside her worst enemy.

I struggled to enjoy the beginning of Gideon the Ninth. Gideon tries to carry the story on pure snark, but it is very, very goth. If you like desiccated crypts, mostly-dead goons, betrayal, frustration, necromancers, black robes, disturbing family relationships, gloom, and bitter despair, the first six chapters certainly deliver, but I was sick of it by the time Gideon gets out. Thankfully, the opening is largely unlike the rest of the book. What starts as an over-the-top teenage goth rebellion turns into a cross between a manor house murder mystery and a competitive escape room. This book is a bit of a mess, but it's a glorious mess.

It's also the sort of glorious mess that I don't think would have been written or published twenty years ago, and I have a pet theory that attributes this to the invigorating influence of fanfic and writers who grew up reading and writing it.

I read a lot of classic science fiction and epic fantasy as a teenager. Those books have many merits, obviously, but emotional range is not one of them. There are a few exceptions, but on average the genre either focused on puzzles and problem solving (how do we fix the starship, how do we use the magic system to take down the dark god) or on the typical "heroic" (and male-coded) emotions of loyalty, bravery, responsibility, authority, and defiance of evil. Characters didn't have messy breakups, frenemies, anxiety, socially-awkward love affairs, impostor syndrome, self-hatred, or depression. And authors weren't allowed to fall in love with the messiness of their characters, at least on the page.

I'm not enough of a scholar to make the argument well, but I suspect there's a case to be made that fanfic exists partially to fill this gap. So much of fanfic starts from taking the characters on the canonical page or screen and letting them feel more, live more, love more, screw up more, and otherwise experience a far wider range of human drama, particularly compared to what made it into television, which was even more censored than what made it into print. Some of those readers and writers are now writing for publication, and others have gone into publishing. The result, in my theory, is that the range of stories that are acceptable in the genre has broadened, and the emotional texture of those stories has deepened.

Whether or not this theory is correct, there are now more novels like this in the world, novels full of grudges, deflective banter, squabbling, messy emotional processing, and moments of glorious emotional catharsis. This makes me very happy. To describe the emotional payoff of this book in any more detail would be a huge spoiler; suffice it to say that I unabashedly love fragile competence and unexpected emotional support, and adore this book for containing it.

Gideon's voice, irreverent banter, stubborn defiance, and impulsive good-heartedness are the center of this book. At the start, it's not clear whether there will be another likable character in the book. There will be, several of them, but it takes a while for Gideon to find them or for them to become likable. You'll need to like Gideon well enough to stick with her for that journey.

I read books primarily for the characters, not for the setting, and Gideon the Ninth struck some specific notes that I will happily read endlessly. If that doesn't match your preferences, I would not be too surprised to hear you bounced off the book. There's a lot here that won't be to everyone's taste. The setting felt very close to Warhammer 40K: an undead emperor that everyone worships, endless war, necromancy, and gothic grimdark. The stage for most of the book is at least more light-filled, complex, and interesting than the Ninth House section at the start, but everything is crumbling, drowning, broken, or decaying. There's quite a lot of body horror, grotesque monsters, and bloody fights. And the ending is not the best part of the book; roughly the last 15% of the novel is composed of two running fight scenes against a few practically unkillable and frankly not very interesting villains. I got exhausted by the fighting long before it was over, and the conclusion is essentially a series cliffhanger.

There are also a few too many characters. The collection of characters and the interplay between the houses is one of the strengths of this book, but Muir sets up her story in a way that requires eighteen significant characters and makes the reader want to keep track of all of them. It took me about halfway through the book before I felt like I had my bearings and wasn't confusing one character for another or forgetting a whole group of characters. That said, most of the characters are great, and the story gains a lot from the interplay of their different approaches and mindsets. Palamedes Sextus's logical geekery, in particular, is a great counterpoint to the approaches of most of the other characters.

The other interesting thing Muir does in this novel that I've not seen before, and that feels very modern, is to set the book in essentially an escape room. Locking a bunch of characters in a sprawling mansion until people start dying is an old fictional trope, but this one has puzzles, rewards, and a progressive physical structure that provides a lot of opportunities to motivate the characters and give them space to take wildly different problem-solving approaches. I liked this a lot, and I'm looking forward to seeing it in future books.

This is not the best book I've read, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite some problems with the ending. I've already pre-ordered the sequel.

Followed by Harrow the Ninth.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-05-12

Last modified and spun 2020-05-13