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Book Review: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

What if you combined the sci-fantasy setting of Dune, the Warder-Aes Sedai dynamic of The Wheel of Time, the battle-royale structure of The Hunger Games, the snark of Murderbot, and a heaping pile of necromancy? You might end up with something like Gideon the Ninth, but you’d probably have to be author Tamsyn Muir to make it all work.

Cover of Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir.

Like Dune, Gideon the Ninth takes place in a distant (or alternate) future in which technology is advanced and space travel is common. But the planetary system known as the Nine Houses operates under a form of galactic feudalism, favoring swords over “bullet-fueled barbarism” and requiring that every necromancer be accompanied by a cavalier (a warrior of the blade).

Gideon, the protagonist and an unwilling bondswoman of the ninth of those houses, is compelled by its foremost necromancer to enter a contest set by the Necrolord Emperor. She does so begrudgingly, and her complaints are often hilarious. A couple of my favorite lines:

  • “Crux advanced like a glacier with an agenda.”

  • “The blade itself was notched and cracked. ‘Only way this kills someone is with lockjaw,’ she said.”

  • “He had the eyes of a very beautiful person, trapped in resting bitch face.”

I also admired the magic system’s depth. Necromancers in this universe are all “born with the ability to control thanergy (the energy of death) and thalergy (the energy of life), as well as the ability to convert the latter to the former.” But there are many specialties, including bone magic, flesh magic, and spirit magic, and each house focuses on a different aspect. Some necromancers use blood to cast their spells, others collect external components like fingernails and hair, and a very few seek out souls. It’s all wonderfully varied and creepy.

Yet beneath the surface lies a moral conundrum. Many of the necromancers have good hearts, but theirs is a power fueled by death, and the entire Nine Houses system is said to have been resurrected by the Emperor at terrible cost. “I studied what happened when the Lord our Kindly God took our dead and dying Houses and brought them back to life,” a competitor in the contest says at one point. “[A]ll those years ago … what price he would have had to pay. What displacement, the soul of a planet? What happens when a planet dies?” Gideon herself longs to enlist in the Emperor’s Cohort, a fighting force that invades other worlds to slash forth “the initial bloom of thanergy without which the finest necromancer of the Nine Houses could not fight worth a damn.”

But I never had an issue rooting for Gideon—she’s too funny. I only had two real complaints. The first was that when the contest begins, there are too many characters to keep track of: nine necromancers and eight cavaliers (twins of one house share a cavalier). Muir also refers to them by different names: sometimes their first name, sometimes their last name, and sometimes a nickname. These overlapping aliases become less of a problem when the bodies start dropping, though, and the pool of active competitors slims down to a manageable number.

More substantively, I wish Gideon had exercised greater agency throughout the contest. The rules of engagement are intentionally vague, left up to the competitors to divine. But it’s the necromancers who do most of the puzzle-solving; for much of the novel, Gideon is just along for the ride, reacting with jokes and blades but rarely acting in a way that drives the story.

Until the end, which puts Gideon back in the driver’s seat in a way I didn’t see coming. The result is a strong finish that left me eager to continue on in the series and see what Muir blends together next.

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