I probably heard more about Gideon the Ninth prior to its publication than about any other book I’ve reviewed. A lot of that, I’m sure, has to do with my circle of friends, especially online, who share my interests in SF/F stories about women and queer people, stories with adventure and violence and strong emotions. Gideon the Ninth ticks all of these boxes, and its publisher, Tor.com, was apparently very good at communicating this fact to potential readers—and so I began to hear about this book in January 2019, when its release date was not until September.
All of which is to say: I was very ambivalent about reading the book. What mortal could produce a debut novel that would truly be worth so much excitement over so many months? Let me tell you, it’s nice to get a reminder that my cynical heart is wrong sometimes, because, it turns out, that mortal is Tamsyn Muir.
Muir’s story revolves around Gideon, an orphan girl raised in the Ninth House, which is one-half fanatic religious cult worshipping a great necromancer (“the Emperor”), one-half feudal familial estate. The ruler of the Ninth House is Harrowhark Nonagesimus, a seventeen-year-old girl with the power to control bones and skeletons, who accidentally killed her parents as a child, and has since, with the help of a few loyalists, been secretly running the Ninth House by herself, pretending to the outside world that her parents remain alive.
Gideon, only a year older than Harrow, is—thanks to the debt she acquired by landing on their planet as a baby and being raised by them—an indentured servant of the Ninth (which, functionally, means she owes her service to Harrow). Since Gideon doesn’t have any magic powers, she was instead trained to be a warrior.
Life in the Ninth House is pretty miserable. Gideon lives underground, surrounded by “old people” (a very broad category for an eighteen-year-old), religious fanatics, and literal walking skeletons who do most of the menial labor. On top of that, the noble family that runs the Ninth never liked Gideon, and so everyone else half despises, half fears her as well. And as if that wasn’t enough, the jewel in the Ninth’s crown is of course the princess Harrow, who everyone worships and Gideon can’t stand.
In a sense, Harrow and Gideon grew up as the only children in the world. When Gideon was an infant, every child in the Ninth House under the age of nineteen died, all at once, due to a catastrophe. Harrow was born soon after, but no other children were born subsequently. So, when it came to playmates, Gideon the servant and Harrow the princess were quite literally each other’s world—and they’ve resented, hated, hurt, and despised each other for their entire lives:
“Nonagesimus,” she said slowly, “the only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted someone to hold the sword as you fell on it. The only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted your ass kicked so hard, the Locked Tomb opened and a parade came out to sing, ‘Lo! A destructed ass.’ The only job I’d do would be if you wanted me to spot you while you backflipped off the top tier into Drearburh.”
“That’s three jobs,” said Harrowhark.
It’s tough to summarize Gideon the Ninth in part because it combines various sub-genres, but also because the book’s charm, its strength, isn’t in the plot, but in the characters of Gideon and Harrow—and in their relationship. Gideon is probably one of the most fun heroines I’ve ever seen in genre fiction. A cynical, bitter, angry, violent teenager, her most prized possessions are her sword and her dirty magazines. She’s irreverent, bored, insubordinate.
But there is a deep, aching chasm in Gideon to experience life, an ambition to feel and laugh and touch and love, despite a thick coating of cynicism and sarcasm she’s wrapped around herself to survive. There’s something so hopeful about Gideon, so innocent, so untested. The book is about Gideon figuring herself out, for the first time, away from the underground hole she grew up in, surrounded by the same people every day.
Ostensibly, Harrow has no reason to have kept Gideon tethered to the Ninth House for so many years. Yes, she’s the only other young person there, but she also doesn’t play any vital role and is surly and uncooperative. Consequently, Gideon feels like Harrow keeps her trapped out of pure malice and spite, just to see Gideon suffer. What Gideon doesn’t know is that the Emperor has sent a summons to all the Houses, because he wants to choose new Lyctors—something between advisers, executors of his will, and saints, venerated by all, in the religious cosmology of this universe. For Harrow, this is her great chance to restore the Ninth, and to have all her sins—such as killing her parents and hiding it—absolved.
To enter the Emperor’s search for his Lyctors, each house must send the Emperor a necromancer and a specifically trained warrior known as a cavalier. A master of bone magics, Harrow can be her own necromancer; but while Gideon isn’t properly trained, she’s the only warrior young enough to do well in a real fight—so Harrow must have her or risk losing whatever trials the Emperor has in store.
While this setup may sound like it’s leading to a Hunger Games-like competition, Gideon and Harrow actually find themselves at an abandoned palace in space, together with representatives of all the other houses, and no particular instructions. They can stay at the palace as long as they want, with all their needs catered to, but they can’t communicate with the outside world, and no tasks are set before them. Harrow and Gideon, each pretending to be something she isn’t in order to hide what the Ninth has truly become, explore the palace on their own, and they discover various secret doors, passageways, and objects of questionable meaning. But then, the representatives of the other houses start dying. The book then turns into a murder mystery.
The path of the mystery parallels Harrow and Gideon’s relationship. At first they think they can each successfully figure out the haunted palace on their own. But the mysterious challenges keep forcing them together. Nothing can be unlocked with one pair of hands, everything requires a cavalier and a necromancer to collaborate. But that collaboration escalates, leading Harrow and Gideon to the eventual, terrible answer: ultimately, a cavalier must give their life, willingly or otherwise, and the necromancer must consume it. The resulting union of warrior and wizard will produce a Lyctor, who can necromance as well as they can fight. Of course, by that point Harrow has realized she values Gideon’s life above the welfare of the Ninth—which is precisely why she’s going to be forced to accept Gideon’s sacrifice anyway.
For her part, what Gideon finds is that, despite having grown up hating almost everyone and everything around her—despite knowing from a very young age that everything in her life was built on lies and artifice—she still believes in things. She believes in fairness, in protecting the weak, in stopping disasters. In a way, the book is Gideon’s coming-of-age story, in which she discards easy, safe, comforting cynicism for difficult, jagged, costly hope. She cracks jokes about it, but she does the one thing no one expects from her, she finds something she believes in that she considers greater than herself.
And that thing is Harrow. Where Gideon is a tactician and a woman of action, Harrow is a strategist and a thinker. The nerd to Gideon’s jock. At first appearing aloof, cruel, unreadable, a girl who despises Gideon the way one despises a worthless servant, Harrow, of course, turns out to be carrying her own set of traumas.
Gideon discovers all this slowly, as she and Harrow grow closer in the haunted palace. As the two girls go from being enemies to being temporary allies to grudging friends and then finally to true, full-blown trust, Harrow confesses that she’s never harbored any ill feelings towards Gideon. She only took her anger, frustration, and helplessness out on Gideon because she was drowning in guilt and self-hatred.
In this, the book begins to read almost like a romance novel: two protagonists who’ve known each other for years and disliked each other are pulled together through adversity and circumstance; once they have honest conversations and clear up a few misunderstandings, it turns out their animosity and rivalry was over nothing significant. This sort of arc is precisely what I thought of when the marketing for the book mentioned “lesbian necromancers in space.”
But it’s difficult for me to say that Gideon the Ninth is about a romance plot. It isn’t. One can debate whether Harrow and Gideon have romantic feelings for each other—I think they do, but I can see how other people could read the relationship as purely platonic—but what isn’t up for debate is the fact that Gideon spends much of the book having a crush on a different character, another of the palace’s contenders, Dulcinea, a necromancer who is slowly dying of cancer.
Gideon’s relationship with Harrow is so intense and all-consuming, it’s rewarding to watch unfold. They’re both utterly undone by each other by the end: Gideon realizes that Harrow is all that’s ever mattered in her world, and Harrow realizes the same about Gideon. Narratively, then, the sacrifice Gideon is required to make by the rules of the Lyctor ritual is a powerful and thematically appropriate ending, and in the finest traditions of the genre, the door is left open for her resurrection. But, although Gideon the Ninth is part of a trilogy, in this book Gideon’s death is what we get. That narrative is complete, wherever the series decides to take things.
And so, if we consider Gideon and Harrow romantic partners who never got a chance to fully explore their love, Gideon is another dead lesbian leaving behind a grieving spouse. If we treat Gideon and Harrow’s relationship as a deep, platonic friendship, then Gideon is still a dead lesbian who couldn’t even survive a book where she’s the protagonist, and her love interest was a villainous murderer.
This leaves me feeling torn. Ultimately, Gideon’s death joins a long line of stories about dead lesbians, and although the book does the opposite of dwelling on queer suffering, I think it’s impossible to read about Gideon’s deep, intense passion for all the life she never got to live, and not feel that her death was a deep tragedy. This makes for effective, impactful storytelling, but at the expense of another sad queer narrative.
According to interviews, Muir identifies as a queer woman, which means the book could be classified as #OwnVoices, a label meant to promote recognition for marginalized authors who are writing about their own experiences. I believe writers from marginalized backgrounds should get to write whatever they want, instead of being confined to “positive” representation of their own identities. But I wish we lived in a different world, in which Gideon’s death wasn’t piled on to so many other narratives of death and sadness for women like her in fiction. As long as we get these stories, I hope we only get them from #ownvoices authors, who should have the leeway to create their own narratives; but I also wish we got more stories in SF/F like the BBC/HBO show Gentleman Jack, where queer women get to be complicated, sarcastic, scandalous, and ultimately happy and alive.
This is especially the case since Gideon the Ninth feels like it deliberately centers women’s narratives in a story that ostensibly has more or less equal amounts of male and female protagonists. The haunted palace in space is filled with a necromancer and a cavalier from each of the houses, and there are teams of two men, two women, and mixed teams. But the focus of the story, ultimately, belongs mostly to women. The final confrontation in the novel features five different characters, all of them women, who represent three different agendas. There’s something enormously refreshing and pleasant in reading Muir’s story, full of horror tropes and violence and death and magic and swords, in which women are just casually always in center frame.
Unfortunately, the novel has only one unmitigated weakness: its overall worldbuilding. As someone who loves digging into how a world is designed and is usually bothered by inconsistencies, I was surprised to realize how incoherent the book’s worldbuilding felt versus how little that bothered me while reading. There are many ways in which the novel’s internal logic never quite adds up: why were there no children born in the Ninth House after Harrow? Is every House really just a few hundred people occupying an entire planet? Why did the Emperor need a convoluted, open-ended haunted house adventure to slowly convince cavaliers to die for their necromancers when all involved are religious fanatics who venerate the Emperor as a living god and would have been falling over themselves to die for him anyway?
But somehow, none of these questions matter—not when I was reading the book, and not now, when I’ve had time to think about them. The book works because it doesn’t concern itself with the outside world, it’s set in a very small space, with a very small amount of people, and that makes larger questions less important, as long as the small, intimate stuff works. Charming, hilarious, heartfelt, full of bone magic and sarcasm and focused resolutely on women, I hope we get more books like Gideon the Ninth. It does the impossible: it both exceeded the very high expectations its preliminary PR campaign set up, and through its sheer emotional punch, its refreshing characterization, its humor and tone, became a book in which the things I’m used to caring about didn’t matter at all.