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Tamsyn Muir’s “Gideon the Ninth” is the sort of book that I instinctively avoided when I first heard about it because deep down in my hipstery little heart, it just sounded too cool. Unbelievably cool. It had the level of hype that meant the book would inevitably disappoint me. The tagline on the front reads, “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!” courtesy of Charles Stross. “Yeah right,” I thought to myself when I saw it in the store (back in the Beforetime — the book was released in 2019, and one of the characters is actually called Corona without any intention at irony). “That’s too many cool words in one sentence.”
Fortunately, I have a friend who knows better, and “Gideon” and its sequel, “Harrow the Ninth,” have utterly won me over. And as enticing as Stross’ little synopsis is, I’d like to add a few things he left out. First and foremost, the sword fighting, which is engagingly written and serves as a believable and deft bit of worldbuilding. Second and equally important, the humor and sass. And thirdly and also equally as important, the EXQUISITE foreshadowing and plotting. I have read the book twice now and was just as (if not more) engaged the second time around because I was able to pick up on so much more. Characters do a lot of double-talking here and it is thrilling on the reread.
But let’s back up a second. What’s going on here? Lesbian necromancers? Gothic palace? In space? Yes. “Gideon the Ninth” is set approximately ten thousand years in the future, more often stated as “a myriad of years.” Back in the ancient time of roughly our present, an event known as The Resurrection took place, which led to the ascension of the ruling class of necromancers and the Emperor Undying, the first necromancer. The Nine Houses of necromancers occupy the nine dead planets of the Dominicus System, using their magic to preserve and expand their way of life. In the book’s present, the Empire is threatened and the Emperor calls on the Nine Houses for candidates to become Lyctors, immortal necromantic warriors who will fight by his side.
And here we can’t go any further without talking about Gideon and Harrow. Gideon, mysterious orphan, sass-box, redhead, swordswoman extraordinaire, and narrator of the first book, is unrelentingly likeable. Harrow, secret orphan, card-carrying goth, scion of the Ninth House, necromancer, and main character of the second book, is unrepentantly unlikeable. These two grow up as the only children of the Ninth House, antagonists, combatants, equals and opposites, until the invitation to the Lyctor contest. Harrow intends to answer that invitation, but she must bring a cavalier, a bodyguard/confidante, and Gideon is the only option. Watching these two girls slowly work their way from nemeses to allies to friends to … Well, if you’re waiting for me to say this is an enemies-to-lovers situation, I’m not here to spoil anything. Just know the progression of their bond is riveting, though occasionally shockingly painful. And the arguing and bantering between them is a thing of beauty.
The magic system is likewise remarkable — each House has a necromantic specialty, ranging from soul siphoning to animating skeletons to something like pyrokinetics fueled by thanergy, or death energy. The challenges involved in the Lyctor contest deepen both the readers’ and the characters’ understanding of their powers, and by the end I felt it would be perfectly reasonable to grow a full skeleton out of a knuckle bone and ask it to serve me breakfast. It’s worth being clear, however — this book is pretty violent and gory. I never felt that it became gratuitous considering its role in the magic system and plot, but mileage will vary on that, and it does get gross at times.
Speaking of the plot: on the first read, it unfurls like a magic act, all flourish and flash, and earns a big standing ovation at the end. On the second read, it’s like watching two magicians on the same stage who keep stealing and explaining bits of one another’ tricks, and still deserves an even bigger standing ovation at the end. “Gideon the Ninth” and its sequel are space fantasies of the highest order, and I can not recommend them highly enough. A word of warning however: the third book of the trilogy, “Alecto the Ninth,” is not being released until 2022 (month undisclosed). Get invested at your own risk.