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Gideon the Ninth

November 11, 2019

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Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir, is another novel about necromancy. This one has gotten a lot of publicity and came out in a strange hardback edition with the ends of the pages dyed black.

I liked reading Gideon the Ninth okay, but didn’t find the world-building to be particularly well done, or the characters especially well drawn. The plot takes a long time to get going, throwing out red herrings in all directions for the first eighty pages until we finally land on the planet where the main action is to take place—whereupon we’re met with another red herring. We’ve finally found our way through all the stuff about Gideon’s “house,” which is the ninth, and her “necromancer,” a girl she grew up with, and we’re about to find out how all the “necromancers” and their “cavaliers” are going to learn to be “lyctors.” They’ve all been brought together and are being addressed by “Teacher,” who has promised to tell them how the competition will work and what they’ll have to learn. Gideon is not excited at the prospect:
“Everybody was poised in readiness for the outlined syllabus, and scholarship made her want to die. There would be some litany of how breakfast would take place every morning at this time, and then there’d be study with the priests for an hour, and then Skeleton Analysis, and History of Some Blood, and Tomb Studies, and, like lunchtime, and finally Double Bones with Doctor Skelebone. The most she could hope for was Swords, Swords II, and maybe Swords III.”
Instead of outlining a syllabus, though, Teacher simply tells them not to open a locked door without permission. Then they spend the rest of the novel exploring what seems to be a centuries-old laboratory complex full of dangers and directions for learning what an old culture knew about necromancy. The pleasure of reading all this is not because of the plot, the characters, or the world-building. The pleasure is mostly in the dialogue.

When someone gives Gideon a dirty look, it’s way more than that:
“It was not the first time she had received that look. Sister Lachrimorta had looked at her that way almost exclusively, and Sister Lachrimorta was blind. The only difference in the way that Crux had looked at her was that Crux had managed also to encapsulate a complete lack of surprise, as though she already had managed to disappoint his lowest expectations. And a very long time ago—painfully folded in the back of her amygdala—the Reverend Mother and the Reverend Father had also looked at her like that, though in their case, their diffidence had been cut through with a phobic flinch: the way you’d look at an unexpected maggot.”

Gideon has been forced into becoming a “cavalier” by her necromancer, Harrow, and in the beginning of the novel it seems they hate each other: “they clashed so consistently that they were with each other most of the time. They fought each other bloody, for which Harrow was not punished and Gideon ways. They set elaborate traps, sieges, and assaults, and grew up in each other’s pockets, even if it was generally while trying to grievously injure the other one.”

But through the steps of their shared task, Gideon and Harrow learn to respect and then love each other. Again, the pleasure is in the snark, not in their course of true love:
“’Harrow,’ said Gideon, finding her tongue, ‘don’t say these things to me. I still have a million reasons to be made at you. It’s hard to do that and worry that you got brain injured.’
‘I’m merely saying you’re an incredible swordswoman,’ said the necromancer briskly. ‘You’re still a dreadful human being.’
‘Okay, cool, thanks,’ said Gideon. Damage done though.’”

Because this is an inside-out universe, with a ruler who is called the “Necromancer Prime; the Resurrection; the God of the Nine Houses; the Emperor Undying,” the people in it have a skewed perspective on life and death. They are used to skeletons as servitors and dead bodies as easy sources of information. So when one of the necromancers expresses her point of view on life and death, the reader may take it as a bit of world-building, although it turns out to be one of the keys to the mystery of the novel:
“Life is a tragedy….Left behind by those who pass away, not able to change anything at all. It’s the total lack of control…Once somebody dies, their spirit’s free forever, even if we snatch at it or try to stopper it or use the energy it creates. Oh, I know sometimes they come back…or we can call them…but even that exception to the rule shows their mastery of us. They only come when we beg. Once someone dies, we can’t grasp at them anymore.”

An inventive first novel, Gideon the Ninth is the first of a planned series. If you read this one, you will probably join me in the hope that the second one, Harrow the Ninth, will run on more than snark and sarcasm.

 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2019 8:49 am

    As I think we’ve discussed, I usually have SUCH a hard time with books where “funny” is a major way you would describe them, and I particularly tend not to love protagonists who are sort of detached and snotty like this? So I was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy this book, and then I ended up enjoying it SO much. It was one of these cases where for so long I was like “ugh why are there so many characters ugh who are they all” and then at some point a switch flipped and I would die for any of them. JUSTICE FOR [redacted].

    • November 16, 2019 10:32 am

      I think the moment when the switch flips is when the reader realizes that this is, at its heart, a romance novel, full of heroism and sacrifice.

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