by GameKnight Games
This review was originally published in the November 10th, 2020 "One Flesh, One End" edition of the Game Caravan Newsletter. It is provided here as it was originally written.
One year and one month ago, I read New Zealand author Tamsyn Muir's debut novel, Gideon the Ninth
, and my life was forever changed. It is so wonderfully original, filled with such satisfying prose and so unapologetically queer; it is without a doubt the best thing I read in 2019. I am very, very eager to share it with you.
Frequent readers of this publication, the Game Caravan, will perhaps have anticipated this piece. I have not been subtle in the newsletter's edition titles about my love for this book, especially in last week's "One Step Closer to a GameKnight Sponsored Review of Gideon the Ninth Edition". Well, late last week it happened. We received our newest shipment of books and I began to pen this review.
Gideon the Ninth features our titular protagonist, Gideon Nav, and her arch nemesis since childhood, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, as they attempt to unravel the secrets of an ancient and decrepit mansion, located on a planet abandoned for a myriad. Joined by the necromantic scions of seven other noble houses, they have been invited to train to become the Emperor's new Lyctors, ageless servants that carry out his will. Despite their instincts and against their better judgement, Gideon and Harrow can't ignore that this challenge is impossible to complete alone, and seems to be becoming increasingly deadly.
Gideon and Harrow's relationship forms the backbone of the novel. To briefly summarize the pair, Gideon Nav is an orphaned foundling of the House of the Ninth, arriving under strange circumstances and forever an outcast in her adopted home. She likes large swords and has attempted to run away to join the Cohort, the Emperor's army, a total of 86 times since she was four. Harrowhark Nonagesimus is the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, only child of the Reverend Father and Mother, a talented bone witch and quite possibly the greatest necromancer of her generation. They both hate each other. They hate each other in a special way that only two people who have grown up with only each other for company can. This is where the book really started to grab me, because it was very much not the dynamic I was expecting. I'm not going to delve too deeply into where it goes (spoilers!) but the interactions between Gideon and Harrow were so funny and engaging because of how well the characters know each other and how deeply they despise each other. They feel so much like real people it hurts. So when they become each other's only lifeline in a world that neither of them understands, it makes the tension all the higher. If there is one single reason to read Gideon the Ninth, it is so you can experience Gideon and Harrow firsthand.
If there is a second reason to read Gideon the Ninth, it is the prose. It is dripping with this over the top, grandiose style, contrasted perfectly by a point-of-view character who is crass, blunt and irreverent. It's encapsulated perfectly in the first line of the novel:
"In the myriadic year of our Lord—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!— Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth."
and it only gets better from there. I didn't know how many different ways there were to say bone, until Muir enlightened me with more variations on the word osseous than I am currently able to recall. Reading this book was a joy thanks to how much character the narration has, how every sentence is packed with details beyond its length thanks to Muir's choice of words. Even in dialog, the characters' voices range from flowery and verbose to blunt and pithy as is personally appropriate, complimenting the dichotomy of the prose. You're so enamored, you don't even notice when she starts to slip in the memes.
'“Oh, nonsense!” said Harrow languorously. “She’s a genius. With the proper motivation, [Gideon] could wield two swords in each hand and one in her mouth. While we were developing common sense, she studied the blade.”'
Lastly, let's talk about the setting. Gideon the Ninth takes place in a universe that seems simultaneously familiar and strange. Muir indulges in the rich tradition of fantasy, mixing in a dash of science fiction, to come away with something entirely unique. Necromancy suffuses every aspect of this interstellar empire, ruled from afar by the King Undying. Skeletal servants toil endlessly in the background. Nuns fervently rattle through knucklebone rosaries. For bone-adept Harrowhark, ribs are as much an accessory as they are the tool of her morbid trade. There is no escaping it, much to Gideon's chagrin, and it all supports the book's backdrop and tone. The history of the nine houses and the mysteries of Lyctorhood are doled out over the course of the novel like little treats, every new secret a tantalizing piece of the larger whole, building up to the novel's finale. Between the worldbuilding and everything going on between Gideon and Harrow, it's a very satisfying payoff.
The heart of Gideon the Ninth
is its tough, loyal and troubled protagonist and her mysterious, vexing and insomniac rival, supported by a richly detailed setting and vivid prose. Honestly, this is barely scratching the surface of things I want to say about this book. I've hardly even touched on the other characters, the inter-house dynamics, a variety of things that shall remain unmentioned due to the aforementioned spoilers, or how refreshing it is to read a book where characters are just gay without any explanation or justification. I strongly encourage you to read it, you will not regret it. But don't just take my word for it! Gideon the Ninth
won the 2020 Locus Award for Best First Novel and was shortlisted for the 2020 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2020 World Fantasy Award, and the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel. If that's not enough to convince you, you can get a taste by reading the first chapter on the publisher's website for free. And when you're ready to purchase a copy, I'm happy to say that you'll be able to find it at GameKnight Games on our online store.