Skeletons All the Way Down: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, kicks off a weird-wild-and-wonderful trilogy full of politics, lesbians, and undead bullshit set in a solar system that has scientific advances like space travel but also necromantic magic pushing the crumbling worlds along. From the first line of the book, Muir makes no bones (ahem) about the style of her protagonist Gideon’s approach: “In the myriadic year of our Lord—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!—Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.”

Gideon Nav is a dedicated swordswoman, a fan of pornographic fiction particularly that featuring other dedicated swordswomen, and an escape artist with almost one hundred failures under her belt trying to get off-planet from the sepulcheral haunts of the House of the Ninth. Her sole same-age companion is the Lady and Heir of the House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Naturally, the pair are also enemies at the extreme; Harrow’s prime entertainment is Gideon’s torment. Which means that when Harrowhark receives the summons to attend trials selecting the next batch of Lyctors, and needs Gideon’s sword at her side, things are going to get—exciting.

Gideon the Ninth is, as all the other folks talking about it have noted too, fun. To reflect the tone of the book itself: it’s fun as fuck. Muir had a grand ol’ time writing this fast-paced, darkly funny, spookily horrific novel and that shines clear through each line. Gideon—her endless quips that range from cutting to crass to downright dumb, her stark disinterest in respect for tradition and authority (the sunglasses!), and her deep well of emotional repression—is a protagonist after mine own heart. It’s her voice and her perspective that brings the book to vibrant life. Muir balances comedic timing with creeping monstrosity, body horror against mad science, intrigue against friendship against alliance against affection. And, somehow, all of the tropes and sly asides to them work in concert to create a perfect mélange of action, fright, political machinations, and romantic tension.

[Spoilers follow. Head here for our non-spoiler review!]

The most revealing (but also most fun) tag applicable to Gideon the Ninth is enemies to lovers. Regular readers of stories with the sort of energetic, combative, “toss the two hand-biting antagonistic opposites together and make them go” shenanigans featured here will recognize the beats from the beginning. With delight, of course—as I did, when the continual sniping of Gideon and Harrow in the opening of the novel featured a litany of the ways in which Harrow tricks, manipulates, and keeps Gideon at her side… but then says things like, “I don’t even remember about you most of the time.” Muir’s novel is a fine example of the ways in which a familiar pattern can be used to bring rambunctious life into a plot. Familiar isn’t bad, and if done well, it’s immensely enjoyable to see how the characters get from point A (necromantic duels in the dirt) to point B (a cinematic confession of the truth with hugging while floating in a pool), and eventually to point C (‘I’d die for you’-level loyalty).

Scenes like the first moment in which the reader realizes tensions are thawing between Gideon and Harrow are fantastic, including lines like, “Several hours later, Gideon turned over in her bed, chilled by the realization that Harrow had not promised to never talk like that again. Too much of this shit, and they’d end up friends” (210). As it turns out, there are significant misunderstandings dating to childhood that led to their at-each-other’s-throats-ness. Significantly, though, Harrow’s regular emotional and physical torment of Gideon is actually discussed—because their budding relationship can’t quite gloss over the real damage Harrow had done over the course of a good short lifetime—and Harrow owns it, apologizes for it, even though an apology isn’t quite sufficient.

Bless a complicated, growing relationship that allows women to inhabit a full range of behavior and feeling, including the nastiest, ugliest parts. There’s something to be said for a big, buff, crass swordswoman and her fragile but immensely brilliant, kind of sadistic, powerful necromancer getting together in slow, prickly, back-and-forth steps that requires them be more open, more honest, and more willing to collaborate to build something functional together. On that note, one of the textual queues that most caught my interest during that process is when Gideon begins thinking of Harrow as her necromancer, her adept, hers. It’s perhaps before Gideon herself even notices—but the reader certainly does.

The plot itself is, of course, also great fun. Twisty and engaging, Gideon the Ninth features a locked-room mystery set on a horrifying isolated planet in a decaying castle underneath which are buried a set of moldering (or, worse, perfectly preserved) scientific necromancy laboratories full of tests and monsters—through which our unlikely pair creep wearing their black vestments, faces “painted like living skulls, looking like douchebags” (169) to quote Gideon, as alliances flourish and crumble between the Heirs of the eight functional houses. The reader will not be bored to say the least.

It’s also worth noting that, in true “first of three” fashion, Gideon the Ninth ends on one hell of a cliffhanger. Our protagonist is, in the technical sense, dead. Her spirit has been consumed and re-anchored inside Harrow, per the requirements of creating a Lyctor, at her own choice and sacrifice. But her body—and if we’re talking familiar hints, here’s a big one—was not recovered from the First House’s planet when the Undead King arrived to the rescue. There were in fact several missing corpses. I did have a good yell at the book when she threw herself on the sword to save the lot of them, and continued the yell in pleased but offended delight as Muir writes one of the most visually and emotionally satisfying bits of fight I’ve read in some time. The image of Gideon’s spirit behind Harrow, supporting her arms as she lifts the heavy sword in her stead, is burned into my brain. (Like, come on, we’ve all consumed enough anime to love the hell out of that, right?)

The limited vistas of the locked-room-mystery planet and the cloistered seclusion of the House of the Ninth’s estate gives over in the final chapter to the open expanse of the solar system. Harrow and Ianthe are the fresh Lyctors, on the Emperor’s shuttle, about to discover the truths behind their own political system… and what happened to their companions’ remains, one hopes, from the slaughter on the first House’s planet. It’s obvious that I can’t wait to see how Muir expands the world in the following two books as well as what’s going to happen with Gideon and Harrow, because it’s obviously not the last these two have seen of each other (aside from the whole resident-spirit-thing). With one debut book, Muir has leapt up the list of continuations I’m eagerly awaiting—so, while we wait for the next installment of lesbian necromancers, snippy hilarious dialogue, and violent political intrigue, I’ll keep thinking about Gideon the Ninth.

Gideon the Ninth is available from Tor.com Publishing.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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