Monday 11 May 2020

Gideon The Ninth - review

Exuberant, quirky, and occasionally goofy, Tamsien Muir’s uneven debut novel is elevated by singular world building and an engaging primary narrator.

Introducing us to an ancient, decaying nine-world civilization, Gideon The Ninth follows the title character’s journey from her miserable, frozen and depopulated homeworld on the edge of the solar system to Canaan House, the central palace at the heart of the empire. Partnered with her hated childhood rival Harrow, Gideon represents her world in a series of trials.
Protagonist Gideon
Nonagesimus is an
extraordinary swordsman
who wears sunglasses.
(Image via

The location is as integral to the novel as any of the characters: Canaan House is a massive, sprawling castle complex filled with antediluvian secret chambers, cyclopean tombs, labyrinthine passages, and crumbling architecture. It is a castle with a personality all its own, and may be one of the most well-developed characters in the novel. It reminded some of us of a YA Gormenghast.

The book is poised in that liminal zone between the fantastic and the science fictional. Details of how the world works are peppered organically through the story, without excessive elaboration about why, or how: magic (but only necromancy) is in common use, spaceships flit between distant worlds, the civilization is ruled by arcane and ancient noble houses, mirrored sunglasses are rare but obtainable. Nothing about the setting makes sense, and yet it all seems to work.

An interesting aspect of this world building is that although the magic is limited to various iterations of necromancy (raising the dead), it has been around long enough for civilization to have found every conceivable use for it. This is one of the most interestingly imagined magical systems in recent memory.

The prose may be somewhat rococo for the tastes of some readers, but it would be difficult to deny the skill that’s evident in the sentence structure, and the depth of descriptive detail. It has often been observed that the classic gothic horror novel is usually about a woman who moves to a house, where the otherworldly contents try to harm her. Both in terms of style and content, Gideon The Ninth falls into this tradition.

The book’s momentum is propelled by Gideon’s irreverent, quippy first-person narration, filled with bravado and ribald jokes. This type of cooler-than-cool, hipper-than-hip protagonist may be somewhat of a cliche in genre fiction, but Muir manages to make the trope feel fresh.

Through flashbacks and Gideon’s internal monologue, readers learn about her long problematic
Tamsyn Muir's debut novel
is filled to the brim with strange
and wondrous imagination.
(Image via Wikipedia)
relationship with Harrow, the heir to the throne of the House of the Ninth, and the person most responsible for hijacking Gideon’s life. Because they’re forced to ally with each other during the trials they face, they quickly grow closer, and eventually develop an intimate relationship.

This frenemy/codependency slowly becomes the heart of the novel, albeit an exceptionally problematic one. Gideon has very little agency in her decision-making. She’s essentially bound into servitude, frog-marched into her role as the Ninth House’s representative in the trials, and thrown into grave danger, with her freedom dangled as a potential reward. The power dynamics between Gideon and her oppressor are uncomfortable, as Harrow treats her with little respect. Some of us were uncomfortable with the abusive nature of this central relationship. 

Although a sequel is already available, even those of us who were enthusiastic in our appreciation of the novel wondered whether a follow-up is necessary. The book seems complete in and of itself, and further exploration of this bizarre and beautiful world may only serve to diminish the vast, unknowable mystery.

Despite these issues, Gideon The Ninth is a memorable, well-crafted, and worthy Hugo nominee that will end up fairly high on our ballots. We will be very interested to see what other strange and arcane worlds Tamsyn Muir will take us to next.

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