RogerBW's Blog

Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir 11 May 2020

2019 young adult fantasy, first of a planned trilogy. In a decaying interplanetary empire powered by necromancy, Gideon is a foundling brought up by the Ninth House, guardians of the Locked Tomb. But the Empire has required all the houses to send their necromancer-heirs, and a necromancer needs a bodyguard…

This is a very self-indulgent book. It revels in its decay and grot, both in the Ninth House and in the place where all the heirs and their "cavaliers" are required to gather to compete – well, is it even a competition? – for the privilege of becoming one of the Emperor's "Lyktors".

All right, the language can get a bit overblown, but that's some of the pleasure here. This isn't a world that's supposed to make sense in terms of deconstructing the magic system or the social conventions (though there are hints of interesting worldbuilding, they're largely kept off-stage); it's a world that locks a group of strangers into a house in a contest reminiscent of Big Brother, only with lots more animated skeletons and gory deaths. (Which, let's face it, would improve Big Brother too.)

She parked herself on one of the destroyed humps of rubble in the dead centre. The lamps made lacklustre any real light. They explosively birthed malform shadow all around. The shades of the Ninth were deep and shifty; they were bruise-coloured and cold. In these surrounds, Gideon rewarded herself with a little plastic bag of porridge. It tasted gorgeously grey and horrible.

The shape of the story clearly owes a lot to other YA books, notably The Hunger Games and the Divergent series. In particular, we have the structure of factions each of which has its own expected type of personality (and of course they don't all conform to the expectations), and a protagonist from the underdog faction that nobody else takes seriously; and there are offers of friendship, and of enmity, and neither should necessarily be taken at face value. Even more YA is the way that the protagonist's horrible childhood was all for reasons, which will all be explained.

But Muir manages to distinguish this book from the host of YA imitators (not least because Gideon – female, in spite of the name – doesn't have two hawt boys fighting for her affection. Or even, considering her preferences, two hawt girls.) There's a knowingness to it, a slight wink that says "yes, this is luridly purple, and it's silly, and it's gothic… and isn't it fun?"

The front line of the Cohort facilitated glory. In her comic books, necromancers kissed the gloved palms of their front-liner comrades in blessed thanks for all that they did. In the comic books none of these adepts had heart disease, and a lot of them had necromantically uncharacteristic cleavage.

So we have nine Houses (well, eight not counting the Emperor's House which isn't involved), two people each – that's sixteen people to keep track of, plus a few more incidentals, and that can be quite hard work at times. Yes, there's a dram. pers. at the front, but when the same character can be referred to as Palamedes, Pal, Sextus, or Warden I did sometimes find myself floundering a bit. About the half-way mark I'd got them all sorted out, by which time of course the dying had started… and there's rather a lot of dying. Not quite a gothic And Then There Were None, but it comes close.

That first half is also rather longer than it might have been, Let's wallow in the decay, by all means, but considering how the pace is ramped up once things do actually start to happen, it's a shame it had to have such a thin start.

"He say anything?"

Gideon wavered. "He said to tell you he loved you," she said.

"What? No, he didn't."

"Okay, no, sorry. He said—he said you knew what to do?"

But in the end the only thing that really fails for me is that there isn't much of a conclusion; the immediate fight may have been won, but the status of lots of people is still uncertain; To Be Continued. Oh well; for that reason alone this wouldn't have garnered a Hugo nomination from me even if I'd read it before the deadline. Otherwise I might have put it above Ancestral Night, but to me a Hugo book shouldn't just be a well-worn story form told well; it should do something truly distinctive and original within the genre. Of the four Hugo-nominated novels I've read at this point, I'd put it last if I were voting.

But just because I don't think it's a good Hugo book doesn't mean I don't think it's a good book. It is, particularly once you unstick yourself from the slow start; it's a pleasure to read, and I enjoyed it more than I did A Memory Called Empire. This is a book I keep wanting to rave about to my friends, and the only other Hugo-candidate like that this year was The Future of Another Timeline. I'll keep reading the series. (The next volume of which has been pushed back to August.)

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Previous in series: The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex | Series: The Locked Tomb | Next in series: Harrow the Ninth

  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 01:54pm on 11 May 2020

    We had the pleasure of meeting the author, who is a scream, at the only convention we planned to attend this year, which might well have been the only convention any of my friends attended this year.

    From talking with Tamsyn, I suspect part of your reaction is that this novel is not written for you, as in it has a certain perspective that for obvious reasons you don't fit.

    Still, a book about lesbian necromancers; what's not to like?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:59pm on 11 May 2020

    Quite possibly it's not written for me, but of the books I've read this year it's the one I enjoyed most. It's just not quite as innovative as I like to see in a Hugo-nominated book.

  3. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 04:19pm on 11 May 2020

    Things like innovation and worthiness are great for those who want literature rather than entertainment, but I'm just happy that books I like get nominated for the Hugos.

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