Published in September 2019 by New Zealand-born author Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth is a speculative fiction novel, the first of the Locked Tomb Trilogy, with features of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and murder mystery. The story follows swordswoman Gideon Nav and her lifelong sworn nemesis and head of state, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, who is a prodigy necromancer specialising in creating and animating monstrous skeleton warriors to fight for her.

The two lead characters openly hate each others guts, to put it mildly, but circumstances force them to cooperate: in a setting reminiscent of the works of Agatha Christie and Vincent Price, they are invited (more like voluntold) to a retreat at an exceedingly lethally haunted house. As other characters start dropping like flies, it falls on Harrow and Gideon to identify the murderer in time to avoid being killed, themselves.

This narrative is an eventual lesbian romance following the classic trope sequence, "enemies to rivals to begrudging allies to friends to lovers." I say "eventual," because most of these steps are taken purely in subtext, with gestures of trust and affection being subtle, rare, and largely taking place later than 70% of the way into the book. These characters are brutally standoffish, vindictive, and have catastrophically valid reasons to despise each other to the death, but neither is allowed to die without the other's permission, and that jealousy within their vicious enmity is the foundation on which more nuanced emotions are able to develop. Readers looking for a sweet and cozy love story are advised to turn away; this author believes in "earn your happy ending" and doesn't mind wringing the reader of every last drop of pathos available.

In return for violently wrenching our heartstrings, Muir gives us a spectacularly fun, snarky, clever novel, which smoothly paves the way for its sequel, Harrow the Ninth, to release in June 2020. The sword dueling scenes are brilliant; the necromantic combat is top-notch for gruesome imagery and tense action; the supporting cast are diverse and complicated personalities with believable relationships and motivations, that make the mystery plot very satisfying to attempt to unpack. The mystery is not the kind which the audience has enough information to solve - there is no Sherlocking your way through this one, on the clues given, and the third-person narrator is not omniscient, instead adhering strictly to Gideon's frame of reference - but it's still enjoyable to make guesses at which characters to trust, and which to find suspicious and threatening.

This is a book I can unequivocally and gleefully recommend to anybody who enjoys a good murder mystery, a rich and well-developed sci-magic system, a nemeses-to-allies plot, or the premise of a haunted house in space. I am only burdened by the miserable knowledge I'll have to wait a year for the next installment.

Iron Noder 2019, 15/30

I really was not sure I was going to like this book. Of late I have been deep in a pit of historical fiction, so deep that I had pretty much forgotten that I like other genres. But a chance encounter with an author on Twitter nudged me to buy a series of fantasy novels, which I enjoyed, and then when I recommended them to a friend, she recommended Gideon the Ninth in kind.

“Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted castle in Space” she said, quoting the review on the cover. I vaguely wonder if it was because the phrase had the ring of an ancient node shell that I was intrigued. Or possibly it just sounded like a good concept. In any case, I decided to give it a go.

This is a book that makes you work to understand it, but unlike a literary novel, it lets you get on with it. Rather than being an exclusive members’ club that is far too sophisticated to let you in without a serious down payment, Gideon the Ninth is a goth nightclub of a book. From the outside it looks incredibly cool, and the first time you go, you feel out of place and weird. But the people there pay you no mind, carry on regardless and it’s up to you to work out how to fit in. And you want to. Because the longer you stay there, the cooler it becomes.

I’m not going to torture that analogy any more, but the point is, the book took a while to really get into. The universe is complicated, unsettling, and is not explained at all quickly. But that was part of the fun. Not so much solving the mystery of the book but the mystery of the setting. What the hell is this world where necromancy is casual and every day. How is anyone in this world of bones and blood sweat (so much blood sweat) sane? What could possibly be terrifying to people who spend every day being waited on by reanimated skeletons?

Once I had those questions in my head, I was pretty hooked and looking for answers. Luckily the characters were too, at least after a fashion, so I started paying more attention to them. By this point they were having sword fights and arguments, there was death, melodrama, swooshing cloaks and blood sweat. Actually, while I’m here I should mention that the swordfights are great.1 Then, fairly quickly, I started to like them. The main cast anyway. There are quite a lot of peripheral characters that I should have paid more attention to earlier and kept getting confused. This was not helped by complex pun-based naming conventions (that I later discovered were explicated at the end of the book). But the main pair are fantastic, compelling creations who I found myself starting to really care about.

Eventually I worked out who everyone was and more or less what was going on. At this point everything sped up. Plots thickened, horrifying things were done to flesh and bone, keeping track of characters became markedly easier. A scene in a saltwater pool had me absolutely gripped, despite the almost complete lack of sex or violence. Then, in a rush, the furious, frantic end game. I will leave off describing it in more detail because I really think it’s worth it if you can avoid spoilers (especially the one at the back of the book where the names are explained – I am so glad I didn’t see it in advance), and I don’t trust myself not to give anything away. Suffice it to say a hundred or so pages from the end of the book, I ordered the sequel.

Gideon the Ninth is well worth picking up and sticking with until you feel comfortable with it. It knows all too well how weird it is and like its main characters, seems at times to be trying to provoke you into throwing it away. But if you can put up with it, it ends up becoming not just delightful but beautiful. Despite all the blood sweat.

1 SPOILER WARNING This is only a minor spoiler, but just in case, I wanted to address one point. It is a fairly important plot point that rapiers are light weapons that can be wielded by weak necromancers, who could not hold a heavy longsword. This is a pity because while pretty much everything else about the swordplay is spot on (I speak as someone who instructs rapier fencing), this is the wrong way around. Rapiers generally weigh about the same amount as a longsword, or only slightly less. They are also wielded with one hand. This is somewhat more strenuous and takes a good deal more conditioning to be able to do well.

I can't add much to the writeups above. However, I feel that I should chime in with additional positive review, simply because I generally don't much want to read a dark, violent, gothic, science fantasy novel. A ghost in space is not generally attractive, and a skeleton army in space is just dumb. The adjectives used in the book jacket blurbs are uninspiring -- 'pulpy', 'heart-poundingly epic', 'sharp as a broken tooth, 'goofy and gleaming' -- basically no one knows what to say about it, and most reviews just end up saying something along the lines of "lesbian necromancers in space, what's not to love?"

But despite all of that, this was a really good book.

This is a twisty mystery with many moving parts and a new set of rules that are both predictable enough to make things interesting and unpredictable enough to surprise you. It's a treasure hunt in an ancient mansion only slightly less epic and mysterious than Piranesi; the lurking evil forces are mysterious, twisted monsters worthy of The Rook; the cast is as dark and varied and contentious as The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. It is A Night in the Lonesome October as written by Martha Wells... or something. Anyway, while it is not going to make the ranks as one of my favorite books, I will be reading the rest of the series, and I will look forward to reading it again in a decade. Don't be put off by anything so shallow as an aversion to necromancers.

SciFiQuest 3021

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