“Nonagesimus,” she said slowly, “the only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted someone to hold the sword as you fell on it. The only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted your ass kicked so hard, the Locked Tomb opened and a parade came out to sing, ‘Lo! A destructed ass.’ The only job I’d do would be if you wanted me to spot you while you backflipped off the top tier into Drearburh.”
“That’s three jobs,” said Harrowhark.
“Die in a fire, Nonagesimus”
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir is one of the biggest blockbuster fantasy debuts of 2019 and when I ordered the book 5 months after it was published, it was already in its 6th printing (going by the number line in my copy). It has an attractive sell: LESBIAN NECROMANCERS… IN SPACE! Now, I am a simple man—you can sell me on anything if you smush enough random words and genres together into your premise. I am a huge sucker for novelty.
The story follows Gideon Nav, a foulmouthed orphan and combat savant stuck in indentured servitude to one of the nine necromantic houses of the galaxy. When the summons came from their undead god-emperor in search of a new Lyctor, Gideon was bullied into serving as cavalier (or bodyguard) for the scion of the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus. The pair then travelled to the emperor’s homeworld, to the Canaan House where they would compete with the heirs of the other eight houses of the galaxy for Lyctorhood—all of which with their own flavour of necromancy. Some are good at raising skeleton servants. Some specialises in speaking to the spirits and ghosts. And some are so adept at manipulating human physiology that they can heal or sicken their targets with magic. Then the gruesome deaths begin and there is blood by the bucketfuls.
Yes, this is Hunger Games/Red Rising all over again, but in fantasy drag and a smidge of whodunit thrown it.Yet, in spite of the cliched YA premise, I found myself sucked into the story. Tamsyn Muir wrote fearlessly and without restraint, and I can’t help being impressed by her boldness. For example, she made the choice of using very contemporary millennial/gen-Z slangs that would date the book terribly in a few years and I would normally be turned off by the prospect of reading a 444-page book written this way but somehow, it works. It worked for me. This is probably one of the funniest fantasy novel I read in a very long time, and the last time I remember a fantasy author putting so much emphasis on comedy (and succeeding in the endeavour) was Jonathan Stroud and his Bartimaeus books which came out in 2003. Contrary to expectations, puerile humour is actually quite hard to pull off without coming across as cringey or obnoxious. Gideon the Ninth is a book that thrust its hips lewdly into my face over and over again, but it did it with enough agility and artistry that I let it get away with it.
I think Ms Muir owes her success in part to Gideon’s undeniable charisma. She is a redheaded ball of barely restrained id, bouncing manically between her triad of passions of dirty magazines, sword fights, and burning hatred of Harrow—whom she cheeks at every opportunity. Meanwhile, Harrow is what you get when you cross the bookish genius of Hermione Granger with the fashion sense and dourness of Severus Snape, and she makes for an excellent foil for Gideon. It is always delightful when Gideon think mean thoughts about Harrow.
… Gideon would have immediately made plans to get into Harrow’s wardrobe and do up all the buttons on her shirts, making sure that each button went into the hole above the one it was meant to go into.
She would not thank Gideon even if she had sat her flat ass in a puddle of molten lava, especially not as Gideon would religiously mark each anniversary of the day Harrow destroyed her butt with magma.
She had always thought—when she bothered to think—that Harrow would feel cold, as everything in the Ninth felt cold. No, Harrow Nonagesimus was feverishly hot. Well, you couldn’t think that amount of ghastly thoughts without generating energy.
The whole book held together really well until it neared the end, when the greasy answers all come home to roost. Even though Gideon the Ninth‘s story comes in the shape of a mystery, it is not a fair one. I don’t believe it is possible for a reader to work out the reveal just by solving the clues. And a lot of the twists Ms Muir threw at me in the final chapters smelled faeculent to me because they were clearly pulled out of her ass. While I did enjoy reading the book and Ms Muir showed genuine talent in it, I think it could have gone through at least one more pass of editing and polish. Did she really need to use the term “sotto voce” 4 different times in one book? What is wrong with “under the breath”, “in an undertone”, or just plain “softly”? I’ll be honest—I still really want to read the next entry into this Locked Tomb trilogy, and that is because of the richness of the world Ms Muir built, and also because Gideon the Ninth set up more questions than it answered before hanging itself from a cliffside. If you are looking for a fun fantasy read with interesting, likeable characters, you can do worse than picking this up. Just watch out for the mess it makes towards the end. One hopes that its sequel, Harrow the Ninth (coming out in June), is up to the task of cleaning it up.