A lot of the best recent science fiction and fantasy stories are notable for how well they color outside the lines. Disregarding genre expectations and freely borrowing tools from other literary traditions, a slew of writers are reinventing previously hide-bound forms. This is partially a progression of craft, but it’s also possible because of broader cultural phenomena — fantastical tropes, once restricted to a few niche markets, now dominate mainstream media. As a result, storytellers have to do less reinventing of the wheel each time they mix far-fetched elements — even the most general audiences don’t need the lore of vampires or zombies explained to them, so it takes very little narrative lifting to add such ghouls to an unexpected setting.
Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, uses more obscure narrative ingredients — if you don’t know what necromancy is, that’s okay — but part of the delight of reading the novel is just how fearlessly it tosses together outlandish ideas with distinct elements from different genres. It’s a space opera about wizards; it shapes itself into cozy mystery; it slides into slasher-horror, then cuts its way free with musketeer-level swashbucklery. Like its eponymous protagonist, Gideon knows what it’s interested in, and that does not include a lot of dry exposition, world building, or backstory. This keeps the prose nimble; because of this, the plot steadily accelerates. At times morbid and horrific, at others times exuberantly gross, Gideon the Ninth is incredibly fun. It’s snarky, inventive, and absolutely revels in sexual tension and swordplay.
The novel’s heroine is a rebellious child of the Ninth, which is a dying House of Death on a barely-habitable world. She grows up surrounded by ghoulish nuns and reanimated skeletons. After her thousandth attempt to run away is foiled, Gideon realizes a possible means of escape: she can serve as bodyguard and champion for her lifelong friend and enemy, Harrowhark, the Ninth’s heir-apparent and most potent necromancer. Harrowhark and Gideon, along with pairs from the other Houses, are invited to become the God-Emperor’s next Lyctors: immortal agents with inhuman powers. First, though, they have to overcome the lethal challenges of the First House.
After the initial scene-setting, Muir drops us into a Clue-like mystery, complete with locked rooms, dangerous puzzles, and inexplicable murder. Making friends and enemies among the other houses, Gideon and Harrow must also find a way to connect. They must figure out how to work around the deep scars from their traumatic shared childhood — “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.” Gideon faces more deadly opponents, and is variously attracted to several other women, but it’s her deep and conflicted bond with Harrow that marks the story’s emotional arc.
Where Harrowhark is a kind of obsessive, acerbic overachiever, Gideon is competent but clueless; the narrative is told from Gideon’s perspective, so the reader is left in the dark about much of the larger world and plot. The lack of explanation might be frustrating for traditional science fiction readers. We don’t learn why the characters use swords instead of guns, much less how exactly magic and interplanetary travel interact. Yet Muir makes Gideon’s adventure-by-adventure experience so integral and seamless that we don’t really need that larger world building spelled out. One area that takes a while to click is the ensemble cast: Gideon and Harrowhark meet fifteen other necromancers and cavaliers all at once, all of them freighted with the largely unexplored historical baggage of their Houses. This led me flipping back to the dramatis personae more than I would like. It’s also hard to grasp the political and militaristic significance of much of the plot. After all, Gideon only became a soldier to escape from home, and didn’t initially have an interest or reason to fight.
What keeps Gideon the Ninth barreling along is Muir’s clever exploration of a heavy, frequently horrific plot that is juxtaposed by very modern dialogue and irreverent humor — Gideon can’t let a “that’s what she said” opportunity slip by, even while facing down the undead. An irritable duelist is accused of being “hangry”; hip readers will catch references to “I studied the blade” memes. Despite the level of humor throughout, the story never breaks the fourth wall. The novel never feels in love with its own cleverness, which is a tricky thing with humor. A kind of winsomely defensive sarcasm grounds a cast of mostly young characters in extreme situations, and brings a surprising authenticity to mood shifts throughout. Muir, whose short fiction has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson award, is adept at turning the story in suddenly horrific directions, despite the skeletons to which we’ve become accustomed.
For a book permeated with death — there are necromancers, after all — Gideon the Ninth is remarkably joyful. The snippy banter is great, the action scenes are top-notch, and Gideon emerges as a fully-formed, emotionally realized character. As a result, this allows the book a much greater tonal range than one might expect. In a recent interview with Bustle, Muir describes writing the novel for her 17-year-old self, with an emphasis on a world where casual lesbianism is possible. Gideon’s internally-confused (but outwardly-brash) flirtations and confrontations are a delight on every page. She’s also kind of a jock — “she loved her sword so much she could frigging marry it” — and Muir captures that jubilance in every fight scene, even when Gideon is just an observer. Fight scenes are a notoriously easy place for fantasy novels to struggle — it’s all too easy to get bogged down in tedious over description, or to leap through fights without thinking through the actual mechanics. But in the case of Gideon the Ninth, the fights are fantastic. Gideon’s enthusiasm guides the prose, and each scene is worthy of something out of The Princess Bride.
It’s difficult to overstate how fun this book is. The genre-mashing works better than it has any right to, and the groundwork laid throughout — the system of magic, the stakes, Gideon and Harrow’s relationship — pays off in the last act. “They had never fought together before, but they had always fought, and they could work in and around each other without a second’s thought.” Rambunctious, unapologetic, and somehow consistently believable, Gideon the Ninth is a fantastic debut.
Gideon the Ninth
By Tamsyn Muir
Published September 10, 2019
Tamsyn Muir’s fiction has been nominated for countless awards, including the Nebula Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the World Fantasy Award.
Born in New Zealand, she now resides in the United Kingdom. Gideon the Ninth is her first novel.
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.