Monday, September 9, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

The Queer NecRomantic Murder Mystery You've Been Missing All your Life

Cover art by Tommy Arnold

To say that Gideon the Ninth, the debut novel from Tamsyn Muir, has been the subject of some hype is like saying the Pacific Ocean is a bit wet. The hype about this skeleton-based queer adventure has been slowly taking over my Twitter feed since the end of last year, and its regularly felt like the universe was divided into those "lucky" few who had already read it (and were therefore falling over themselves to talk to the rest of us about skeletons) and everyone else waiting for the release to roll around. At last, dear readers, I have graduated into the ranks of the skeleton analysts.

Was it worth it? Oh, very yes.

Gideon is an orphan raised in indenture to the Ninth House, a crumbling ruined cult living on a nigh-uninhabitable planet, now facing total extinction. Ignored by most and openly tormented by the only other girl her age, Reverend Daughter Harrowhark, Gideon has been plotting her escape for years and on her eighteenth birthday, now finally has her chance to make her way off planet and into a marginally better life. On the verge of making good on her escape, Harrow outwits her at the last minute, only to instead offer to take her as a "cavalier", a sworn bodyguard to the House's necromancer, on a very different sort of quest. The First House - that of the Emperor - has offered a challenge, enabling a representative from one of the houses to ascend to the Emperor's services if they can successfully complete a task on the deserted First House planet. Left without a choice (and clearly intrigued and also maybe a bit into Harrow) Gideon takes on the challenge, taking a crash course in what it takes to be a cavalier before setting off to a crumbling house for an uncertain contest with the other seven houses. And then, of course, the murders begin.

In its worldbuilding, Gideon the Ninth takes a particular kind of claustrophobic gothic sensibility - one that's embodied in speculative work like Gormenghast and Under the Pendulum Sun - and applies it on an interplanetary scale whose mechanics are vague but also irrelevant. There's an empire, which we don't get a whole lot of information on, but whose leadership appears to be at the least chronically absent from the house structure its created. These houses specialise in upholding different aspects of the empire, ranging from practical services like "being soldiers" or "managing the library" to more nebulous professions like "being likeable", "thinking you're good at diplomacy but you're not, actually", "dying of attractive forms of consumption" and, of course, "skeletons". There's definitely an evolution to be drawn here from the districts of the Hunger Games or factions of the Divergent trilogy (and before those, the Hogwarts Houses) to this distinctly non-YA portrayal of a dysfunctional and yet internally meaningful classification system; in practical terms, the houses allow Muir to introduce a lot of characters and give them motivations in a relatively short space of time, and to allow the representatives of the Ninth House their own pre-existing prejudices and conflicts with those houses, while still maintaining them as outsiders to civilised company. Almost all of the supporting characters grow beyond the stereotypes of their house depiction (the main exception is the soldiers of the Second House, but they play their role and further nuance is not really missed), creating a highly satisfying political-necromantic soap opera which gets more desperate as the body count starts to build.

At the centre of it all are Gideon and Harrow, and their deeply dysfunctional relationship, all told through Gideon's lens. Muir may have written Gideon the Ninth in third person but it's most definitely Gideon's voice, and the portrayal of someone who has spent so long putting up with overblown spooky bullshit that she has no more fucks or reverence to give is utterly hilarious. Though Gideon makes no explicit cultural references to anything but her dirty magazines (and those play less of a role in the narrative than you'd think), her voice is imbued with what in other mediums would be referred to as "easter eggs": occasional memetic pop culture references to things like Mean Girls, which don't detract from the text if you don't read them as such but add to the idiosyncratic irreverence if you do. Because the atmosphere is so well defined beyond Gideon's perception, it makes for some highly amusing moments where Gideon's internal descriptions contrast with what's objectively going on: for example, her enforced vow of silence in early chapters allows her to come across as a creepy, mysterious hooded-and-painted skull figure to the rest of the group, even as she's walking around being internally rude, judgemental, and bored. The fact that the atmosphere isn't really dented by Gideon's irreverence is testament to Muir's skill in balancing the tone of what could have been a very uneven book. Instead, it all meshes together to create something that feels unique and fresh with a wonderful character voice, and a strain of heartbreak that really creeps up on you under all the hardened sword-wielding snark.

Another point of skill is the way that Gideon and Harrow's enemies to "it's complicated" relationship unfolds (complete with multiple complications including the aforementioned attractive consumptive necromancer), completely against the intention of either character, against a backdrop of general queerness despite their being very little in the way of explicit romance. Although I found it mildly frustrating that the few more "established" couples seem to be heterosexual, the way queerness is incorporated normalises it in a way which then enables Gideon and Harrow to be utterly obtuse about each other without it coming across as "baiting" or textually ambiguous that they could jump each other's bones (I promise that's the only skeleton pun that's going to make it in here) (but only because I'm kind of tired and don't expect any more low-hanging fruit). It's an important balance to strike particularly in a book like this where the trajectory is not towards an uncomplicated happy ending for the disastrous duo, because if lesbians are going to end the story unhappy and/or out-of-action, I need an author to have earned my trust along the way. However, this is a point where individual mileages may vary, and if you're a reader steer clear of "bury your gays" in the broadest sense then it may be worth seeking out a more spoiler-heavy review to work out if Gideon the Ninth is a book you want to invest in.

For me, therefore, this book has certainly earned its pre-release buzz, and I expect the community excitement is only going to increase as more people get to experience the world and characters Muir has created here (there was already a Gideon cosplay wandering around Worldcon one day, which I was pretty excited to see even before getting to read the book). In a strong year, Gideon the Ninth has effortlessly risen to near the top of my 2019 reads, and while its combination of gothic-grimdark worldbuilding sensibilities and post-Potter Millennial teen snark isn't going to work for everyone, it certainly does capture a genre zeitgeist which I was thoroughly delighted by. Best of all, there's just so much more of this bizarre world to see, and it sounds like we won't be waiting long before the next adventures of our skeleton faves in Harrow the Ninth.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonus: +1 Double Bones with Doctor Skelebone; +1 I could probably write a second review on all the other necromancers and cavaliers and my feelings about them (except the Second House)

Penalties: -1 Worldbuilding is a bit light on everything that doesn't play into the "Double Bones with Doctor Skelebone" aesthetic

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Muir, Tamsyn Gideon the Ninth ( Publishing, 2019)