I feel sorry for my co-workers that had to catalogue Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth. How do you categorize a book that does all it can to resist labels and push boundaries? On the bright side, that means Gideon has something for nearly everyone: space travel for science fiction fans, magic for fantasy fanatics, skeletons and other undead abominations for horror enthusiasts, romance for – well, romance readers. The characters are primarily young adults, but the content and themes transcend the YA label. The cover and content are pulpy, but the prose is literary. There’s plenty of humor, but Muir treats her characters and their problems with the gravity they deserve. After all, the stakes are higher than life and death – they’re life and undeath.
The story is told from the perspective of the eponymous heroine, Gideon Nav, an indentured servant in the Ninth House. It’s Gideon you see on the striking cover, clad in all black, her face covered with skull paint and aviator shades, walking away, sword drawn, from an explosion of skeletons. Her fiery red coif gives the cover a splash of color; similarly, her incandescent personality lends levity to the novel’s gothic, often grotesque proceedings. The book’s opening line, the most memorable I’ve read this year, is a masterclass in narrative table-setting: “In the myriadic year of our lord — the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! — Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.” This simple declarative sentence immediately introduced me to Gideon and her world, and had me dying to learn more about them. Even when I was finished reading, that desire stayed with me; unlike many of her fellow authors of genre fiction, Muir never gets bogged down in the expository weeds of worldbuilding, instead letting her colorful characters stay in the driver’s seat as the plot moves propulsively from one scene to the next.
Gideon is a sort of inverted Harry Potter figure, leaving behind a hostile home for a new life in a place filled with wonder, danger, and people who know far more about it than she does. Unlike the boy wizard, however, Gideon isn’t so much called to adventure as dragged on it against her will, when her lifelong frenemy Harrowhark, daughter of the Ninth House’s leaders, foils her escape attempt. In doing so, however, she strikes a bargain with Gideon: if she accompanies Harrow to the First House and serves as her cavalier (essentially a bodyguard/personal assistant), where the aforementioned King Undying (a God-Emperor who should feel familiar to Warhammer 40k fans) is holding tryouts for new Lyctors (basically immortal lieutenants with vast necromantic powers).
Upon arriving at the First House, Harrow and Gideon meet their counterparts from the other seven Houses. My main criticism of Gideon is that it’s difficult to keep track of a dozen-plus characters dumped in your lap all at once, especially when only a few of them are as interesting or well-developed as our heroines. Thankfully, in its second act the book turns into an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, culling the cast significantly (plus there’s a handy list of dramatis personae at the front of the book). It’s during this section that Muir fleshes out her world’s magic system, one of my absolute favorite parts of the book. You’d think a book based entirely on necromancy wouldn’t be that varied in the magic department, but you’d be wrong – each House has its own special variety of death magic, from summoning skeletons to siphoning souls. What’s truly impressive, though, is that these differences in magic aren’t merely superficial. Instead, each necromancer’s style of magic reflects their personality.
In the third act, Muir gives readers the climactic action scenes and revelations of mysteries that we expect, and executes both with aplomb. Ultimately, however, what kept me reading was Gideon and Harrow. As they struggle to work together, they learn not just about the secrets of the First House, but about themselves as well. The ending is explosive and intimate, hilarious and heartbreaking, a tearjerker and a cliffhanger all in one. I can’t wait for the sequel to come out next year; in the meantime, I might have to re-read this one.