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