Gideon the Ninth

You have probably heard of this book. It is, undoubtedly, the most talked about book of the year. Indeed, it is the most talked about debut novel that I can remember. Admittedly they didn’t have social media marketing campaigns back when Neuromancer came out, or Perdido Street Station (which I know wasn’t a debut, but King Rat was barely noticed). But even Ancillary Justice didn’t get this level of promotion.

The buzz is justified as well. Gideon the Ninth is a very good book. It would not surprise me to see it on the Hugo Award ballot next year. Worldcon will, of course, be in Wellington. Tamsyn Muir might live in the UK these days, but she’s a Kiwi by birth and has lived in Wellington. No New Zealander has ever won Best Novel. Indeed, I’m not sure one has ever won a fiction Hugo, though they have been conspicuously successful with their movies. No pressure, then.

I got to talk to Muir briefly while I was in Dublin for Worldcon. She seems to be coping very well with the fame thus far. But of course the book wasn’t published then. I do hope that her publishers are taking good care of her.

But what about the book?

Imagine, if you will, the Warhammer 40k Spiky Death Metal universe, when all of their enemies have been killed. That would include internal enemies, because once you have perfected the arts of necromancy you have little need for living humans. The dead can do all the physical work for you.

Now, ten thousand years into the future, things are a little slow and cobwebbed. The powerful are very old. Nothing much has changed for a very long time. Yet now the Emperor, Necrolord Prime, King of the Nine Renewals, Giver of Resurrection, His Celestial Kindness, King Undying and so on and so forth, has issued an invitation. He wishes to find new recruits for his elite corps of Lyctors. The heirs of the Nine Great Houses have been invited to apply for elevation. Eight ambitious young necromancers, each accompanied by a loyal cavalier, arrive at the First House eager to be tested, only to find that the Imperial Palace has more in common with Gormenghast than a glittering centre of empire.

Let’s back up a little here. The world of Warhammer 40k has faster-than-light travel. The world of this book seems system-bound. There are nine Houses, each based on its own planet. You can guess where this might be. First House is clearly based on Earth. Second House, home of Cohort, the Imperial army, is Mars. Seventh House is presumably Venus as their logo has a rose in the skull. Sixth House, home of the Imperial Library, is Mercury, as the text eventually reveals. The origin of the numbering isn’t obvious – perhaps it is order of settlement. What is clear that our heroes from Ninth House live far out on dark, tiny Pluto. Yes, it is still a planet. And in a civilisation ruled by necromancers it is Ninth House, in their cold and lonely isolation, who are the Guardians of the Locked Tomb.

Cue ominous bass line.

In some ways this reminds me of Cat Valente’s Radiance, which also plays with the personalities of the nine planets. But it also reminds me of the planetary associations in Sailor Moon because there are so many young women involved. And because a book full of lesbian necromancer sailor scouts is too delicious an idea not to hold on to.

There are very few young people in Ninth House. One is Ortus, the Cavalier Primary. He’s a sickly lad, far happier writing melancholy poems than training with a sword. Worse, he is totally under the thumb of his widowed mother who doesn’t want him doing anything dangerous. He is clearly not his father’s son.

Gideon is an orphan and therefore an indentured servant of the House. Her mother arrived at Ninth House already dead, and her shade refused to do any more than name the child. Gideon hates her life in Ninth. She has only two pleasures in life: pornographic magazines, and sword fighting. If she wasn’t a servant, she would probably be the best Cavalier that Ninth House has ever had. But she is a servant, and a badly-behaved one at that. If young people were not so rare in Ninth she would undoubtedly have been executed years ago.

Finally we have Harrowhark. She is the Reverend Daughter, Heir to the house of the Ninth, and a superbly accomplished necromancer. Harrow is Wednesday Addams on steroids. Or perhaps more accurately Wednesday Addams on whatever drugs would make her more Goth, more cunning, more ambitious, more ruthless and more deadly.

Naturally Gideon and Harrow hate each other. Harrow hates Gideon because there is no weight of responsibility on Gideon’s shoulders. Gideon hates Harrow because Harrow owns her, body and presumably soul as well.

That, then, is your set-up. Gideon the Ninth is a book about comedy lesbian necromancers. Necromancy isn’t inherently funny, but the tradition of things like the Addams Family, not to mention Jonathan L Howard’s Johannes Cabal series, shows that death can be hilarious. I now live in hope of seeing Muir and Howard on a convention panel together talking about deathly jokes. And I hope that the success of Muir will lead to an increased interest in the Cabal books because Howard is a great writer.

The thing about death, though, is that no matter how funny you make it, it is still deadly. What we have here is effectively a country house murder mystery. As the necromancers and their cavaliers start the elevation process it becomes clear that they may not all survive to become Lyctors. Nor are they quite as alone as they seem. All of the Houses have their secrets, Ninth not the least of them. The further we get into the brilliantly designed plot, the more deadly things get.

Eventually we find out what it means to become a Lyctor, and then there will be tears. Thankfully there will be Book 2. I can’t wait.

book cover
Title: Gideon the Ninth
By: Tamsyn Muir
Publisher: Tor.com
Amazon UK
Amazon US