Gideon the Ninth
by Tamsyn Muir
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 11, 2019
Tamsyn Muir's debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, will be published in one month, September 10. Edelweiss offered a download of an e-ARC without having to request and wait for approval. It has been receiving significant buzz from other writers and reviewers I follow on Twitter. Unfortunately, I didn't like it as much as I'd hoped. I'll give a brief synopsis, then attempt to explain why it was difficult for me to connect with it.
This is a mixture of fantasy and science fiction. It takes place on two different planets, which I assumed were in the same system although I may be mistaken about that. There are spaceships and shuttles, high tech weapons, but also mystical or magical weapons and tactics too, but I guess it's possible those are just applications of inexplicable science (see Clarke's Third Law). There are nine Houses in this realm, each concentrating on various elements of necromancy. Most, but not all, of the servants in all the Houses are reanimated skeletons. Over them all is the Emperor, head of the First House, supposedly an immortal who had died and been resurrected, ruling for at least ten thousand years. He is referred to by various titles, either separately or all together: The King Undying, the Necrolord Prime, our Resurrector, King of the Nine Renewals, the Necromancer Divine. Among his retinue are the Lyctors, and the Priesthood of Canaan House. The Emperor does not reside on the planet that is home to Canaan House, he's off somewhere in space. He does make a brief appearance at the end, up to that point he is just spoken of.
Gideon Nav is an orphan, an indentured servant of the Ninth House. The Ninth are considered a weird cult by the other Houses. Their main purpose is to maintain the Locked Tomb, which purportedly contains the body of someone who defied the Emperor and nearly defeated him. The tomb has been sealed for countless generations, apparently there isn't even a key, but Gideon knows someone who was able to get inside. That would be her primary nemesis throughout the book, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, daughter to the Reverend Father and Mother, heads of the Ninth House. As a necromancer, Harrow is able to regenerate multiple skeletons from the merest slivers of bone, but other necromancers might use different methods. Gideon and Harrow are the only ones left from their generation, two hundred other children having died mysteriously when they were infants. We don't learn until late in the book the significance and legacy of those deaths. Up till then we're left to wonder why Harrow seems to hate Gideon so much, why she puts her through such tortures, why Gideon has tried to escape scores of times. The story opens on one more of Gideon's attempts to leave the Ninth, but Harrow is able to thwart her again. Later, Harrow enlists Gideon to be her cavalier as she endeavors to become one of the Emperor's Lyctors.
When they arrive at Canaan House they meet the necromancers and cavaliers from the other houses, Two through Eight, with whom they will be in competition for the position of Lyctor. What follows is somewhat a variation on Agathie Christie's And Then There Were None, although here there are seventeen potential victims/culprits instead of just ten. The extra is because there are twin necromancers from the Third. Since many people don't share my tastes and will take the recommendation from others, if you do read this please make note of the Dramatis Personae at the beginning. For a print book keep a bookmark on those pages, since you'll be checking them frequently. That's not as easy to do with an e-book, so write them down first. There are times when the characters are only identified by their first name, or their last name, or their House, or by their title. For instance, one of the twin necromancers of the Third House might be called Corona or Coronabeth one time, or Miss Tridentarious, or Crown Princess of Ida, or someone else might be called the Fifth adept (meaning the necromancer), or the Seventh cavalier. It took a long time to get them straight in my head.
It's written in third person, but much of the exposition is from Gideon's perspective, in fact it is almost as if it's in first person. Many of the descriptions, asides, and comments about the events and other characters sound so much like Gideon's speech patterns, including the expletives. On the other hand, several comments don't seem to fit the character or the situation. As Gideon is preparing her latest escape, "she unlocked her security cuff, and arranged it and its stolen key considerately on her pillow, like a chocolate in a fancy hotel." Gideon has spent her entire eighteen year existence in the dungeons of Drearburh, how would she know anything about what happens at a fancy hotel? Later, another character is described as holding an object (I'm not identifying the object), turning it upside down as if he's emptying a piggy bank. Again, how would she know about piggy banks? It's possible the author would say Gideon learned of such things from the magazines she reads, but then again, those are described as "skin mags," pornography, which one has to wonder how she obtained when she lives among necromantic nuns.
Since so many books these days are parts of a series, I need the first one to be more informative and compelling. It wasn't until almost 3/4 of the way that we got some desperately needed background details, but by then it was too little, too late. If this wasn't an ARC that needed feedback I probably wouldn't have made it that far. I know I'll likely be in the minority, but I couldn't connect with any of the characters or the situations. The mystery was somewhat interesting, but limited due to that lack of caring about the characters. If I can't appreciate the first book I'm unlikely to be interested in the second. And such is the case with this one.
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