Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

ARTWORK by chic2view from 123RF.com

(moderate to heavy spoilers)

I first picked up Gideon the Ninth a few years ago, and was thrown by how far it went from my expectations. Very buzzy book was Tamsyn Muir’s debut, lot of expectations. I picked it up again earlier this year and read it, sometimes struggling with the tale of Gideon and Harrow and sometimes gobbling it up. Now I’m reviewing it two months later, and do you know why it’s taken two months for this to happen?

I still don’t know what I think of it.

Not totally, you understand. Two months is plenty of time to consider what one thinks of various elements. But the whole of it? How it comes together, what I think of the book?

Let’s put in an image to try and keep the spoilers a little further down the page.

Besides, it’s a sick cover, it deserves to be shared.

The hype of what Gideon the Ninth is and the reality can be a little different at times. Take, for example, all the talk of how modern the prose is. Yes, a lot of it is – particularly the dialogue – but far more is dedicated to rich, thick, gothic descriptions. I liked the dialogue. I liked the descriptions. Together? The rhythms of the prose felt wildly non-matching. I got more used to it as I got into it, but I don’t think I ever got above “I tolerate this”.

I also saw a lot of people talk about the murder mystery. Well, I do like reading about murders. But they only start halfway in. People, do not read this for the murders.

So why should you read it, assuming you’re not the type of person who just jumped right in at “lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space”? It’s not an easy question to answer as, pedantically pointing out that Gideon is a lesbian swordswoman who finds herself stuck around necromancers (to her disgust) aside, it’s pretty accurate. It’s very gothic. I think I saw the book at the Dead Can Dance concert the other day. Maybe not that spacey, but the combination should have Warhammer 40k fans right at home. There’s a metric shit ton of necromancers. And it’s really rather sapphic, although to my inexpert eye, its sapphic nature comes through in a way where it’s just a detail of the characters if you’re neither here nor there on lesbian matters, but has a lot of added meaning if you are.

Perhaps the better way is to describe it as the story of one person, Gideon, and the person she hates most, Harrow. Gideon is a sarcastic, stubborn type who wants nothing more than to get away from the Ninth House, which has treated her badly all her life. Harrow, who acts as superior as a cat clothed in gold, has been the main face of that. They need each other for what they want, but they also need to see the other grovel in the dust in their feet. This part of the story, I could read all day every day. I’m not in love with stories where two people who despise each other are tied to each other by the tail as a rule, but when they get it as right as this, it’s amazing.

The thing is while that’s the star of the dish, there are so many other ingredients on the plate. There’s a personal conflict/coming of age, there’s a murder mystery as mentioned, there’s a lot of very technically involved action scenes in terms of both blade and necromancy. I feel like you really needed to understand the magic here to get the best out of this book due to how important it was, and I’m not sure I did. I certainly didn’t feel like I understood it enough to have a shot at solving the murder mystery myself, although perhaps that was due to a general lack of information. The swordfights were great though. Will be rereading those. Does it contain a romance? I’ve seen some fairly emphatic views for a yes and a no. Personally no, but who am I tell those who see it otherwise? There are two arcs that might be viewed in this light.

And there are so many characters that matter. The cast feels huge for a book of this size. Muir managed a peculiar trick here of failing to differentiate the characters enough for me to understand who is who, while giving them enough depth that I wanted to know about most of them. It’s the worst of all worlds.

In short, the star turn – Gideon’s and Harrow’s snarktastic duel for supremacy – just got drowned by everything else going on. A lot of what went on was good, but it clashed with other elements. It’s the sort of book that makes me wish I was an editor and it had been in my hands, so I could shape the idea and Muir’s considerable talent to my own ends. Which means moving the murder mystery forwards, reducing the cast or adding a hundred pages, and more exposition. I know exposition is meant to be unpopular but stick it in the characters’ voice and people will lap it up.

What whoever edited this book gave us is short, punchy, and a bit marmite. They decided to go after the main fanbase for it and rely heavily on the vibe, I think. I know a lot of people it’s worked for and this book got well hyped, so job’s a good ‘un despite my personal preferences. But for those who have yet to make a decision, have a good think about everything and your preferences before buying, and try to find a sample that contains both description and Gideon’s voice first too.

I think I like it. The fact that, when writing this, I didn’t want to put people off it despite my frustrations says it all. I want to support this book and Tamsyn Muir, I want to read the next book. It wasn’t a perfect book but the great parts are really sticking with me. Just that with some books, supporting them involves issuing a few caveats too. Hopefully I got it right here.

4 thoughts on “Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

  1. I’ll be interested to see what you think of the sequel. Apart from the very opening, I enjoyed GTN, but interest in reading the sequel quickly faded after finishing it, and I’m not sure why.

    I also thought the “lesbian necromancers” tag was pretty cynical. It’s great to have a gay character who is *incidentally* gay, but making a big thing of it in the promo suggests it’s going to play a bigger role than it actually does.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be lying if I said I understood the marketing of books aimed at the LGBTQIA+ end of the market, but I’ve yet to see many complaints from most of those in there. I have seen lesbians talk about how there’s a lot of lesbian subculture in it though.

      Like

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