Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir


The Emperor needs necromancers.

The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.

Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.

Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as skillfully animated as necromantic skeletons. The result is a heart-pounding epic science fantasy.

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will be become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead.


What greater debt could be accrued than that of being brought up?” There’s an invisible collar rested around Gideon Nav’s throat, its leash leading back to the Ninth House, the claws of its heir fastened tight in her flesh.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the sole daughter and secret ruler of the Ninth (and Gideon Nav’s executioner by increment), wore her destiny like a noose. She kept the frailty of her house guarded, locked-down, putting up a masterly front, but a chance at competing for the prestigous role of Lyctor is the only way to save the Ninth from careening into a fearful darkness. It was a last resort, and one the necromancer couldn’t consider without Gideon Nav’s wiliness to fill the role of her cavalier.

Freedom stood unshackled in the bloodied light of Harrow’s coercive offer, and Gideon felt its lure like a hook behind her heart. She would serve as Harrow’s bodyguard in the trials, and then flit out the Ninth like a loosed bird. Gideon would no longer waste the years of her life as an outsider, inside; doomed to grim survival in a world that wasn’t her own.

But once summoned to the decaying Canaan House where the trials are held, the heirs of the nine houses find themselves confounded, given only the barest scrapings of information about the competition, tied to a stake and baited before they embarked on the wretched business of being murdered one by one. Gideon and Harrow must fight back against the shadowy machinations of those who wished to sever their existence from the world…before the Canaan House becomes a slaughter-yard.

The more you struggle against the Ninth, Nav, the deeper it takes you; the louder you curse it, the louder they’ll have you scream.

You don’t really know how high your hopes have been until you watch them plummeting earthward, and you grappling around in the wreckage. Gideon the Ninth snagged at my attention, and I was beguiled by the promise of an atmospheric, Gothic-flavored chiller, packed with catacombs and sarcophagi, resurrections and revelations, fantasy and horror. Unfortunately, the novel’s allure faded into the sky unmarked within the first few chapters.

Gideon the Ninth gets off to an uneven start. We are immediately faced with thickets of unexplained jargon so dense it was difficult to find the other side, and it was like guttering around in the dark, with ink poured in your eyes. For a while, I waited for the dangling threads and wandering pieces of the story to be shepherded into a straight line, as confidently as Dr. Watson observing the actions of his more prodigious friend, but my continuous attempts at making sense of Gideon the Ninth became blighted, abortive things.

For one, the worldbuilding is thin, and my imagining of it was worn and tattered with holes, like a mouse-chewed cloth. The novel is not particularly cogent, or focused, or informative about the actual setting, and I was confused, as though I’d walked in on the middle of the wrong movie. The explanation of the different planets and the different castes and people who inhabit them is blurred to insignificance. Some micro-flaws in the logic also feel sloppy; there are copious pop-culture references (to Mean Girls and The Office) but, oddly, some characters don’t even know what a sink is.

It’s not until a little over halfway through—when the many strands of the narrative are held together by the unfolding closed-circle mystery—that my interest begun to stir again, feebly. The whodunit becomes the driving force of the novel, with conflicts coming to a head and silent tensions finally boiling over. What seemed at first to be a random patchwork coalesces into a grander, madder pattern, and I felt like a lost sailor suddenly handed a compass. If Gideon the Ninth had stuck to this relatively straightforward plot from the beginning, it would have made for a solid, winning read. But the plot comes too late, and by then, I was so bored I barely managed to squint the words into focus.

To the author’s credit, they write Gideon’s inner and outer dialogue with flair, but mostly skimp on showing in favor of telling. Gideon’s voice feels conspicuously flat at points, particularly in her stilted banter (or maybe her sense of humor just doesn’t jell well with mine), and in her contribution to the book’s larger arguments, which are very few. As Gideon and Harrow’s journey becomes stranger, so does the novel’s voluminous cast of characters, most of whom only show up when most convenient, their personal conflicts relatively slight. Not that these characters aren’t arresting enough to warrant books of their own, because they are. Unfortunately, that only underscores how really underdeveloped Gideon is.

What saves the book, however, is the ultimate, bloodcurdling conclusion that is as sickeningly satisfying as it is opportune. I’m also a sucker for the enemies-to-lovers trope, and this book knew just which buttons to push. Harrow and Gideon’s relationship is a pickled thing, as though it’d been preserved in vinegar, only to be pulled out to act as garnish to their artfully plated arrangement to be Necromancer and Cavalier. The tension between them is a constantly low-simmering fire—one errant breath of wind could fan it—and I snatched hungrily at those scattered moments between them.

Gideon the Ninth was pitched to me as “queer necromancers in space”, giving me a bellyful of false hope. It’s not exactly an inaccurate claim—just rather…flimsy. There are necromancers, Gideon is most definitely queer, the space part leaves much to be desired…still I wish I haven’t rested my expectations upon such a beguiling premise.

4 thoughts on “Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

  1. Ooh first ‘negative’ review I’ve seen so far! I’m still excited, but will keep your points in mind!



  2. I’ve been kind of on the fence about Gideon the Ninth, and you may have convinced me not to read it, haha. While I’ve been seeing so much praise and love, I’m just not sure this book is for me – the story itself doesn’t interest me all that much, and the things you mentioned as negatives (particularly about Gideon’s character and the plot) would most likely annoy me as well. 😦 Either way, this is a great review! 🙂


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