“Too many words,” said Gideon confidentially. “How about these: One flesh, one end, bitch.”
How do you review a book like Gideon the Ninth?
It is a book that I loved!
But it is also a book that has many flaws, alongside all those elements that rightly deserve praise. A book that gloriously refuses to be any single genre and somehow almost all genres. A book with that quote from Charles Stross – “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!” – which is pretty accurate but also so terribly reductive – not unlike the title of the film Lesbian Vampire Killers, which was also (incidentally) a very fun film.
Okay, let’s start with the plot and try to add some meat to the skeletal description from Stross – yes, the terrible pun was intentional!
We begin in Castle Drearburh of The Ninth House and
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.
It is a strange opening. It combines a rather mystical and ritualistic tone with cryptic hints of a wider world with a more colloquial, contemporary and irreverent style. And this is a tone and style which continued throughout which at times was a little gimmicky, but absolutely flowing with energy.
Gideon’s flight is intercepted by a number of people, eventually including Harrowhawk the Ninth, daughter of the ruling family, who summons a multitude of skeletons to subdue Gideon and return her to the Castle. According to her, she chose to thwart the escape attempt at the last moment simply
“Because I completely fucking hate you,” said Harrowhark, “no offence.”
Once back in Castle Drearbruh, it is announced that Harrow and a cavalier have been invited to the First House in order to become Lyctors for the emperor. Gideon is manipulated into being that cavalier and they head off to Canaan House of the First House together – ominously, the only two children in the Ninth House, a fact that gains deep significance in the latter parts of the novel.
And this relationship between Harrow and Gideon is wonderful! It is inexplicable in so many ways: alongside this undying, undiluted, mutual hatred – which leads to some fantastic snarking between them! – and yet the moment one of them is in danger or in need of something, the other is invariably there to protect, support and defend them. They throw insults and threats and abuse at each other with every breath. Apparently eager for the other to die in the most horrific ways, but their time at Canaan House reveals old scars and open wounds between them, creates situations that causes them to rely on each other and to learn to trust one another and have conversations like this:
“I need you to trust me.”
“I need you to be trustworthy.”
In the thick dimness of the room she watched the black-garbed girl in front of her struggle around a thing that had settled over them like a net; a thing that had fused between them like a badly broken limb, shattered numerous times, healing gnarled and awful.
Muir throws into the novel elements of different genres with gay abandon and I imagine her at her laptop with the following thought process:
We obviously have a range of fantasy elements here, starting with the gloriously macabre and grisly magic, specifically necromancy. In fact, Muir has created various shades and flavours of necromancy through bone magic reanimating skeletons, to the creation of undead zombies to soul siphoning to psychometry, each of the nine Houses specialising in one form. And of course, where Harrow has her magic, Gideon has swords, her beloved broadsword which she is forced to swap for a rapier when made cavalier. And Muir does do swordfights incredibly well!
There are elements of science fiction in the space ships and shuttles and interplanetary communications. At the same time, the language and writing style is deeply contemporary and colloquial both in dialogue and in the narration. It is a strange mixture and very visual and cinematic – and it does not stop there.
Once on the First House, necromancers and cavaliers from all Houses assemble and discover that the vast House is itself a test that they must explore and pass in order to discover the secret to becoming a Lyctor. The structure of the novel in this aspect feels very much like a computer game: puzzles uncover new areas which include new seemingly impossible puzzles including big boss monsters that you need to develop the skills to defeat. Your reward? A peek into how to create the magics used to forge the puzzles and the chance to develop your own skills further. It’s also gloriously cinematic – I mean consider this moment as Harrow and Gideon arrive at Canaan House which positively drips chic coolness.
Gideon winked at her increasingly agitated companion. She said, sotto voce: “But then you couldn’t have admired … these,” and whipped on the glasses she’d unearthed back home. They were ancient smoked-glass sunglasses, with thin black frames and big mirrored lenses, and they greyed out Harrow’s expression of incredulous horror as she adjusted them on her nose.”
At its heart, though, in my opinion, beneath the fireworks and the magics and the swordplay, this is a murder mystery. People die – so many people die, it is a novel with a huge body count from its dramatis personae – and it brought to mind most vividly Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – with added skeletons and necromancy, of course. A group of people summoned to an isolated cut-off location where a murderer picks them off; the remaining characters forge uneasy alliances amidst a range of fluctuating suspicions and tensions and paranoia. Until finally the truth emerges.
The novel is, however, by no means perfect in its structure. One small issue was the sudden influx of characters with complex and obscure names from the other seven Houses all at the same time, which felt a little overwhelming – although the naming plays with the names of the Houses with Pent and Quin for the Fifth House, Sextus and Hect for the Sixth etc helped. But more significantly for me, a lot of the revelations that emerge and are critical to the development of Harrow and Gideon’s relationship, and information about the Locked Tomb that the Ninth House guards did not feel quite… prepared for enough. They were thrown out abruptly with some but not quite enough early prefiguration.
But the wider world outside Canaan House felt very distant and vague and unclear – so much so that the opening chapters felt sufficiently incomplete that I set it aside more than once. I can only hope that the next book, Harrow the Ninth, widens the scope further and adds clarity to that wider world view. It is certainly a book that I shall be picking up pretty soon!
Plot / Pace:
Date: 10th September 2019