Gideon Nav will do anything to escape the Ninth – even serve its despised Lady Harrowhark as she vies to ascend to the immortal ranks of the Emperor’s Lyctors. But the competition is lethal – even for necromancers…
I’m not really sure why it’s taken until August 2020 for me to get round to reading Gideon the Ninth. I was excited about it a year ago. That cover alone was enough to have me surging out of my seat; the promise that it was ‘the most fun you’ll ever have with a skeleton’ – and the rave reviews – should have cemented the deal. But somehow it has taken me forever (although I’ll cut myself a little slack. 2020 has lasted forever). Thank heavens for the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards, which finally forced the issue.
I knew I was doomed when I read the Epigraph. I declared for the Sixth on the spot (having finished the book, I stand by my choice).
Six for the truth over solace in lies
But the epigraph – for all its easy rhythm and casual call-back to grand works of world-building of yore – is misleading.
It’s almost easier to say what Gideon the Ninth isn’t than what it is, because Tamsyn Muir ransacked the Houses of Genres and fed it all into the blender. This is not a story channelling the weight of ten thousand years of imagined history into a new crisis. It is not a tale that is entirely coherent, or consistent in pace. Its character are not particularly well-defined. It has a desperate need for context that it chooses to withhold until very late in the proceedings (for no particularly good reason).
It could be a hot mess, but the result is a disarmingly irreverent genre mash-up, told with an eyebrow half-cocked at cosplayers and a sideways glance to Tumblr reblogs.
…and it’s glorious.
It is narrated in an unapologetically modern voice, Gideon’s twenty-first century swearing and entirely random way of looking at the world (‘[he] was uncomfortably buff. He had upsetting biceps. He didn’t look healthy; he looked like a collection of lemons in a sack‘) contrasting sharply with the campy Gothic atmosphere. Its tongue is clearly visible in its bony cheek from start to finish. It’s such a huge bag of ass, Gideon complains from her ludicrously necromantic lair of cold stone, barely lit by flickering gas lamps that don’t like the idea, kept warm by simmering resentment.
Everything takes place to a background rattle of bones: sure, this is space opera, but once off your shuttle the only technology in sight is necromancy. Why build robots when you can raise the dead? Skeletons don’t need servicing, and if they do develop a bad attitude you never need to know. There are many reasons Harrowhark Nonagesimus might wish Gideon Nav were a skeleton. She’d do as she was told. She’d stop fighting back. She’d stop talking.
I adored the dynamic between Gideon and Harrow, two women locked together by mutual hatred and a shared goal, who make a killer team in spite of their fractious relationship. Gideon fits Harrow up as a villain from the very first page. Harrow isn’t just uncaring, she’s cruel – a bully even. She delights in causes Gideon pain, in thwarting Gideon’s plans. She glows with disdain. She is self-absorbed and manipulative, always one step ahead of Gideon, ready to step out of the shadows stroking a dead cat (okay, that doesn’t actually happen). She is a conveniently opaque figure – robed in black, face painted white – onto which Gideon can project her loathing and see it echoed back at her.
We don’t get Harrow’s perspective; it’s unclear until the final act what her motivations are. So we must take Gideon at her word, and judge Harrow on her actions. And those actions aren’t reassuring: Harrow is ruthless, cold, imperious, calculating, ambitious… and very, very good at raising the dead.
Not that Gideon is any better when you stop and think about it. Sure, she’s a hot-headed, foul-mouthed swordswoman with an eye for the girls, but what she’s really after is a chance to splatter blood across the floor. In fact, she wants ‘to fight until bone adepts had to be called to put people’s feet back on‘. She dreams of serving the Empire as part of its formidable (living) Cohort, who kill just enough of their enemy so the necromancers have material to work with. Make no bones about it (sorry, not sorry), we’re definitely hanging out with the bad gals here.
Gideon the Ninth starts as a young rebel trying to escape her dark mistress, pivots into a competition for immortality and ends up a murder mystery as competitors get picked off one by one. It’s tempting to assume someone is trying to slaughter their way to the top, except that this is a rare competition that everyone can win… if they can figure out what they need to do and find the nerve to go through with it. There is only one rule: do not open locked doors without permission (the Ninth are the keepers of the Locked Tomb; don’t talk to Harrow about doors you mustn’t open).
It is by turns hilarious (Gideon’s first cup of tea; Gideon trying to identify any form of water-based hygiene device; Gideon getting weirded out by Harrow being nice to her), brutally macabre (necromancers, what did you expect?) and charmingly weird – not to mention unexpectedly funny. It teases incessantly, building its world in asides and its characters through flirting and snark. It is luridly imaginative and utterly irreverent, sticking two fingers up at expectations and deliberately doing whatever the hell it likes.
They weren’t lying. It was the most fun I’ve ever had with a skeleton.
Content warnings: flu pandemic (historical), genocide as an act of eugenics, a character called Corona, and truly terrible puns.