Eight months ago, while I was completing my final semester at Emerson College, my book marketing professor spoke of Gideon the Ninth incessantly. The SF publishing industry was crazy about the new sci-fi/goth horror/fantasy(?) debut by Tamsyn Muir. She then had a guest speaker — a sales rep for Penguin — corroborate this; the rep had read the ARC of the book, and she was absolutely floored by it.
Then, in April I attended the Futurescapes Writers Workshop, where the instructors were all editors, authors, or agents in the speculative fiction world. And the book was on everyone’s TBR lists — five months before release. So, was the hype worth all of that? It absolutely was.
Gideon Nav is an indentured retainer of the Ninth House, which specializes in raising skeletons, from the smallest of bone shards. Gideon has grown up surrounded by skeletons, undead, dust, and a populace that — barring her and one other — could convincingly pass for the dead. She despises her life there. She hates Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus — the de facto mistress of the house, the only person her age most of all. Tired of a life beholden to the malicious Harrow, Gideon tries to escape, only to be found and defeated by the necromancer and her army of skeletons. Because, as it turns out, Harrow needs Gideon’s help.
The Emperor of these nine House has summoned the heirs of each house to attend a competition. The competition is a perilous one, as it must be, for the path to immortality cannot be simple. The “winner” will ascend to being one of the King’s immortal Lyctors — his knights who fight his enemies for all eternity.
When Harrow’s cavalier-to-be flees the planet, Gideon is the only able-bodied and skillful swordswoman left in the Ninth House. Harrow convinces Gideon to put their differences aside with the promise that once she wins, Harrow will release Gideon from her service. No matter the risk, that is a prize Gideon cannot pass up.
Gideon, a genius with a longsword, is forced to learn to fight with the far lighter and far faster rapier. She must pass herself off as a trained cavalier or risk Harrow losing her only chance at gaining the Emperor’s favor to save her house. Harrow makes Gideon take a vow of silence, forbidding her from speaking with any of the other contestants. To be fair to Harrow, Gideon’s got a potty mouth, and if she’d been allowed to speak, she’d have ruined the ruse in a heartbeat. Such is the charm of Gideon Nav.
When the pair reach the ruins of the First House, a cheery old man, Teacher, shows them around and explains the test to the assembled challengers: the brightest talents of eight houses. While Harrow locks herself away to study the texts in the First House Library, Gideon finds her way around the House, meeting the other contestants and making friends and enemies (all without speaking a word!) amongst them.
Gideon’s leisurely jaunt ends soon as the book speeds up, turning quickly from a goth sci-fi adventure to a full-on horror novel. As strange events begin to take place around them, the Ninth House realizes quickly that maintaining Gideon’s disguise is the least of their problems.
The dilapidated ruins of the First House are haunted. Something hunts the aspiring Lyctors from within the bowels of the ancient house, cold and methodical. They can only hope that by passing the Lyctor trials, they will be able to appease the hunter, or otherwise, be strong enough to defeat it. But who will be the first to uncover the secret to immortality?
Now, that’s about as rough of a summary as I can provide of the story without spoiling anything about it.
The chemistry between Harrowhark and Gideon, the scion of the Ninth House and her cavalier, along with a terrific supporting cast from all houses, drive the narrative. Their revulsion for each other early on (and the strange affection underlying that) leads to powerful scenes between them, and more than a few hilarious ones. As @Steenium tweeted, “it’s quite amusing to read Gideon begrudgingly describe Harrow down to the tiniest details, almost as if she liked her or something.”
Gideon is a wonderful character whose deadpanned wit (and ginormous biceps) just leaps off the page. Despite her being held to an oath of silence, she utterly dominates most of the book. The readers are captivated by her hilarious mind, while the characters in the book respect and fear her for her prowess. A strong, silent woman decked out in black with skeleton facepaint is intimidating enough, even without her skill with the blade. And to watch her, when she can speak, with her designated straight man, Harrow, is incredible. She speaks and feels like a real, living human being, and you grow to care for her as if she was actually alive.
Harrowhark Nonagesimus, on the other hand, is absolutely adorable. Where Gideon is a ripped soldier who like dirty magazines and fighting, Harrow is a schemer with a tongue sharper than any sword. She’s ambitious and competitive, to the point where Gideon — after not seeing her for two days — reluctantly (or so she tells herself) searches for Harrow around the house, only to find her having literally passed out from studying too hard. All this because she didn’t want to let her rival — Palamedes Sextus and his cavalier Camilla Hect, overtake her even for a moment.
There are numerous instances (particularly from Gideon) of anachronistic humor that really shouldn’t work given the setting, but somehow, someway, Gideon makes it work. She can sound like a millennial in 2019 in the middle of a gothic space post-apocalyptic horror mystery, and it doesn’t feel the slightest bit out of place. There’s even a that’s what she said joke, for crying out loud! Here, from page 203:
She held out the key to Gideon. “Put it in the hole, Griddle.”
“That’s what she said,” said Gideon, and she took the ring from Harrow’s gloved fingers.
Along with her in that regard are the amazing pair of Isaac Tettares and Jeannemary Chatur, the necromancer and cavalier from the Fourth House. Whenever they’re in the presence of their guardians — Abigail Pent, necromancer, and her husband and cavalier Magnus Quinn, of the Fifth House — they are utterly appalled by Magnus’s insistence on being a typical dad. He cracks dad jokes, brings up embarrassing stories from their past, and throughout it all, the teens whine at him to stop. It’s hilarious, and the effect is wonderfully enhanced by the choice to set their complaints in tiny print.
Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth is wonderful, to say the least. I was not expecting to feel as much as I did, going into this book. Gideon and Harrow made me laugh almost every page, which I did not expect from a book about necromancers; and they made me bawl my eyes out by the end. Go read the book, you won’t be disappointed.
Update: Around the last week of November, something was brought up on Twitter that caused a bit of a stir – Tamsyn Muir had made her fanfiction account handles public, meaning everyone could identify the fanfics she had written in the past. What was problematic then, was the discovery that a lot of this fanfiction (from 2010-11, when she was an MFA candidate) involves underaged characters, pedophilia, and rape. The nature of this work caused a not-insignificant number of people on Twitter to attack Tamsyn, who had said that she wasn’t ashamed of anything she’d written under the fanfic handle. And true, the contents of these works are not what I would call tasteful, and would not be things I would be interested in reading.
That said, fanfiction has long been a safe haven for people to test out new waters, to try things, to explore what they can do within given settings. A lot of it is based on requests, and fanfic authors tailor their stories to these requests (in much the same way that a lot of freelance artists do furry porn commissions), the topics requested might not be to their own tastes, but the world of fanfiction allows them to experiment anyway — it is meant to be a place without judgment. Until, apparently, you become a mainstream novelist and have a book become as wildly popular as Gideon the Ninth.
What I do not agree with, is the conflation of author and story. The stories written, however distasteful they might be, are not representations of the author’s personality in real life. You can write characters and scenarios that you personally would not like, or ever engage in. I mean, murder’s a common enough element in novels, but you don’t see James Patterson or Stephen King or Lee Child being called murderers daily. Authors are not their characters, and the idea that they should have limits to what they can write, or that they should only write “acceptable” stories, is dangerous. It is harmful to authors and readers alike.
Readers, read what you want to. As long as you know that your real-world interests are not the same as what you read, it shouldn’t matter. Don’t be bullied or kinkshamed into stopping.
Authors, write whatever you want to write. Experiment with topics that push the boundaries. Don’t let this kind of policing stop you from exploring ideas. The day that we allow limits to be placed on imagination is the day that we ring the death-knell of creativity.
Editor’s Note: When asked to vote whether we should publish or withhold this review following the recent twitterversy, most of our readers voted in favor of publishing, and not censoring or punishing an author. See the poll results here on Twitter, and the Facebook discussion here. We thank everyone for their support!